Damien Hirst - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 7, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “The death of an insect […] has this really optimistic beauty of a wonderful thing. I remember thinking about that. They don’t rot like humans.”
    —Damien Hirst


    As rhythmic, radial waves of electric blue, yellow, and burgundy punctuate the glossy green ground, Prodigal embodies Damien Hirst’s perpetual engagement with the universal and inevitable conclusion of human experience: death. Expansive in scale and tone, hundreds of butterfly wings are kaleidoscopically arranged over a single square canvas: a display that is hypnotic as it is unnerving, ethereal as it is frank.


    Now a well-established motif within Hirst’s diverse oeuvre, butterflies emerged in the artist’s practice in the late 1980s, establishing early in his career the uncompromising, high-risk attitude that he would become best known for. Unable to secure a gallery, Hirst’s first solo exhibition in London, In and Out of Love, was hosted in a vacant commercial space on Woodstock Street in 1991. Beginning with experiments with pupae in his bedroom, Hirst recalls the experience vividly ‘because [he] was so cramped’ since the box containing butterflies ‘took up half the bedroom’.i Consisting of two sections titled Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays and White Paintings and Live Butterflies, for the latter Hirst had precisely timed the opening so that the pupae would emerge and transform over the duration of the exhibition. In stark contrast and offering a poignant mediation on the transience of life, the lower floor featured eight brightly coloured canvases affixed with dead butterflies.


    Detail of the present work

    It was then a decade later after In and Out of Love, through discovering a Victorian tray decorated with butterfly wings that Hirst conceived the Kaleidoscope paintings, the series the present work belongs to. Therefore, Prodigal directly engages with the conceptual dimensions of Victorian lepidopterology and their precursor, the sixteenth-century phenomena of the Wunderkammer or the ‘cabinet of curiosity’, reconsidered through a new aesthetic language. Butterfly specimens that Hirst often repurposes from Victorian displays are transformed into dazzling, disciplined systems of colour play, principles that also guide Hirst’s Spot paintings.


    While referencing Victorian conventions of display, through the butterfly Hirst also reflects on universal conditions that bind our present alongside the past. Hirst explained, the 1991 installation was ‘about love and realism […] life and death’ and the dichotomy of ‘butterflies still being beautiful even when dead’.ii Much like the vicissitudes of life and love, the butterfly symbolically and metaphysically embodies the cruel paradoxes of human existence: combining immortal beauty and the frailty of physical reality through their fragile gossamer wings. The butterflies, through their jewel-like luminosity and iridescence offer a hopeful counterpoint to Hirst’s bleaker considerations of life including masses of flies and dead animal matter. Reflecting on French artist Jean Dubuffet’s own butterfly wing collages, writer Alexandre Viallatte has described how, three years after commencing the series, the artist now stood ‘with a flowery hat and socks with green polka dot’, the natural world serving as a remedial force for the participant: an ‘optimistic beauty’ that Hirst himself experiences when using the butterfly.iii


    Jean Dubuffet, Garden with Melitaea, 1955, Private Collection. Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2024

    Hirst’s exploration of mortality is aligned simultaneously to religiosity: a spiritualism that eludes rigid categorisation. Hirst repeatedly returns to religious questions through paradigmatic tiles. Here, Prodigal references the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the New Testament while the mosaic-like tessellations of butterflies have a gothic quality, reminiscent of stained-glass found within the Church. Yet rather than purely rooted in the Christian belief system, Hirst considers universal religious and spiritual symbolism. In eastern religious traditions the circular mandala can symbolise the cosmos, while aiding meditation by directing the observer inwards. The mimetic butterfly wing has a similar effect, guiding the onlooker to centre of the composition, encouraging inner reflection and conjuring worlds beyond.


    Collector’s Digest


    • Among the forefront of British artists today, Damien Hirst was launched into the international art scene in the 1990s. Associated with the Young British Artists (YBAs), a pioneering collective of Goldsmiths art students that shook the art world, Hirst's body of work ranges widely and wildly, examining life and death, beauty and nature, science and religion.


    • Winner of the Turner Prize in 1995, Hirst since 1987 has had over ninety solo exhibitions worldwide and has been the subject to major retrospectives internationally including the Tate Modern in London in 2012 alongside the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice in 2017, displaying over 190 individual works.


    • Examples of Hirst’s work are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the Tate; the British Museum; the Victoria and Albert Museum and Fondazione Prada among many others.


    i Damien Hirst quoted in Mirta D’Argenzio, ‘A Different Kind of Love’, Damien Hirst, exh. cat., Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, 2004, p. 78.

    ii Damien Hirst quoted in Sophie Calle, Internal Affairs, London, 1991, n.p.

    iii Alexandre Viallatte quoted in Eleanor Nairne, ‘The Garden’, Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty, exh. cat., Barbican, London, 2021, p. 87.

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

    • Artist Biography

      Damien Hirst

      British • 1965

      There is no other contemporary artist as maverick to the art market as Damien Hirst. Foremost among the Young British Artists (YBAs), a group of provocative artists who graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London in the late 1980s, Hirst ascended to stardom by making objects that shocked and appalled, and that possessed conceptual depth in both profound and prankish ways.

      Regarded as Britain's most notorious living artist, Hirst has studded human skulls in diamonds and submerged sharks, sheep and other dead animals in custom vitrines of formaldehyde. In tandem with Cheyenne Westphal, now Chairman of Phillips, Hirst controversially staged an entire exhibition directly for auction with 2008's "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever," which collectively totalled £111 million ($198 million).

      Hirst remains genre-defying and creates everything from sculpture, prints, works on paper and paintings to installation and objects. Another of his most celebrated series, the 'Pill Cabinets' present rows of intricate pills, cast individually in metal, plaster and resin, in sterilized glass and steel containers; Phillips New York showed the largest of these pieces ever exhibited in the United States, The Void, 2000, in May 2017.

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signed, stamped with the artist’s stamp, titled and dated ‘Damien Hirst Damien Hirst ‘Prodigal’ 2017’ on the reverse
butterflies and household gloss on canvas
243 x 243 cm (95 5/8 x 95 5/8 in.)
Executed in 2017.

Full Cataloguing

£550,000 - 650,000 ‡♠

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2024