Damien Hirst - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Friday, April 16, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'I liked the idea of taking nature and trying to control it.' —Damien HirstHirst’s Nessus, a painting that features a kaleidoscopic view of colourful beetles and other insects, is from the artist’s series entitled Entomology Paintings started in 2009. The highly complex composition is created entirely from hundreds of varieties of insects, butterflies and beetles, glazed in Hammerite gloss paint, creating radiant and intricate patterns of iridescence.


    Hirst wholly envelopes the viewer by creating an inspiring chromatic effect with rows of juxtaposing colours and incredible vortex of forms. The portrayal of enticing beauty and life is undercut by the reality of what is really there. As Hirst explains, the paintings are ‘beautiful and horrific at the same time, you can’t help but be drawn into it, seduced by it, but you want to run away from it.’i The pattern created by the insects is similar to that of drawn mandalas, creating a mesmerising effect, in which an unsuspecting observer admiring from a distance would be oblivious to the fact that the work is made entirely of insects. While from afar, these individual wings appear like multi-coloured jewels in a mosaic, or panes in a stained glass window, up close each wing serves as a reminder of life’s fragility. The symbolism of the mandala, which represents life and the desire to find one’s true purpose, is contrasted by the fact that the medium of the artwork is dead insects. 
    'I think I've got an obsession with death, but I think it’s like a celebration of life rather than something morbid. You can’t have one without the other.' —Damien HirstDamien Hirst's fascination with death and mortality is a common theme that appears in many of his series. What highlights the dialogue between life and death in Nessus is the presence of dead beetles. In ancient Egyptian religion the scarab beetle was one of the most popular amulets, serving as a symbol of immortality, resurrection and protection often used in funerary art. The artist notes, ‘You have to find universal triggers, everyone's frightened of glass, everyone's frightened of sharks, everyone loves butterflies.’ii Insects are one of Hirst's most incorporated ‘universal triggers’ which have always been central to the artist’s oeuvre as they further emphasise his life-long fascination with life cycles and the inevitability of death. Butterflies hold a particular importance, because they are the ultimate depiction of love and beauty in nature, retaining that beauty even in death.


    While the Entomology Painting series stem from Hirst’s earlier Kaleidoscope Paintings, it may appear a lot more sinister in its theme with titles inspired by characters and locations from the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri’s visualisation of the afterlife. In Dante’s Inferno, Nessus is one of the centaurs who guard the seventh circle, the ‘Circle of Violence,’ making sure that the damned souls drowning do not escape their fate. He was appointed to lead Dante and Virgil along the Phlegeton River to hell.


    Though at first dead butterflies and beetles may seem as rather morbid, Nessus encourages the viewer to reflect on how fleeting life is and may perhaps be seen as the embodiment of living life in all its colours. ‘I want to make art, create objects that will have meaning for ever. It's a big ambition, universal truth, but somebody's gotta do it.’iii

    i Damien Hirst in conversation with Tim Marlow, ‘Entomology Cabinets and Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings and Colour Charts,’ Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. / White Cube, 2013, video
    ii Damien Hirst, i want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London 1997, p. 132.
    iii Sean O’Hagan, ‘Damien Hirst: ‘I still believe art is more powerful than money,’ The Guardian¸ 11 March 2012, online

    • Provenance

      White Cube, London
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2013

    • Exhibited

      Hong Kong, White Cube, Damien Hirst: Entomology Cabinets and Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings and Colour Charts, 21 February - 4 May 2013, pp. 58, 263 (illustrated, p. 59)

    • 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 ''Nessus' Damien Hirst 2009' on the backing board; signed 'Dhirst' on the reverse of the frame
entomological specimens and Hammerite paint on canvas, in artist's frame
72.2 x 72.2 cm (28 3/8 x 28 3/8 in.)
Executed in 2009.

Full Cataloguing

£100,000 - 150,000 

Sold for £113,400

Contact Specialist


Tamila Kerimova
Specialist, Director, Head of Day Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

+ 44 20 7318 4065



20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 16 April 2021