Damien Hirst - Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 12, 2007 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    White Cube, London

  • Catalogue Essay

    For centuries, the image of the butterfly has been revered and reproduced by
    numerous cultural and religious groups, not only for its inherent beauty, but also for its symbolic significance. The butterfly can represent development, change and evolution at its most basic physiological level. The insect’s metamorphosis into a fully realized butterfly is one that is familiar to many; the egg hatches into a caterpillar which grows and then develops into a formed butterfly. It is in this unusual and fragile natural transformation that the process of life begins. To others, the butterfly’s associations are more symbolic and steeped with religious and spiritual meaning. The ancient Greek goddess of beauty Psyche was frequently depicted as a butterfly, or part butterfly in ancient iconography. To the Native Americans, it is believed that if you whisper a secret to a butterfly, the secret will be safe forever,
    release it and it will carry your wish to the Great Spirit. It is only by releasing the butterfly from captivity that it will help to restore the balance of nature and your wish will be granted.

    Damien Hirst has gained his international status as a contemporary artstar by using animals such as cows, pigs, sheep, sharks, flies and of course butterflies as the central focus of some of his most ambitious and successful works to date. By using these animals in his work, Hirst comments not only on the mortality of these particular creatures, but on the idea of mortality in general. It is in fact this larger notion of balance in nature and eternal cycles – life and death – that Hirst is most concerned with in his works of art. From his earliest taxidermies through to his latest exhibition appropriately titled, Beyond Belief, at London’s White Cube Gallery, Hirst has probed the grand theoretical constructs of mortality and eternal life. For this particular exhibition, Hirst exhibited, For the Love of God, 2007 (cf. Figure 1) a life-sized platinum cast skull consisting of 8,601 diamonds, further defining his interest in the associations of life and death, and continuing a dialogue with his previous body of work.

    Damien Hirst graduated from Goldsmiths College in 1989 where he curated the seminal exhibition Freeze the year before, highlighting works from many of his peers who with him would later go on to form the Young British Artists movement. This momentous exhibition helped to gain notoriety for the artist and create a buzz around his work up until the first butterfly paintings were exhibited in June and July of 1991. The Woodstock Gallery in London was the site of this exhibition titled In and Out of Love. For the show, Hirst would fill the gallery with hundreds of live butterflies, many of which spawned from those adhered to his monochromatic canvases with gloss household paint. The gallery was transformed into an artificial environment in which the butterflies would hatch, become whole and die. By exhibiting live and dead insects together, Hirst would create an incubator, a place where the cycle of life and death co-existed for all to experience. This notion of observing mortality would continue to be an important theme in much of Hirst’s work moving forward.

    “I tried to make a comparison between art and life in the upstairs and
    downstairs installations, a crazy thing to do when in the end it’s all art.”(Damien Hirst in R.Violet, ed., IWant to Spend the Resto of My Life
    Elsewhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now., London,
    1997, n.p.)

    The present work, Eternity, 2002-2004, is a unique and beautiful example of a Damien Hirst butterfly painting. Created more than a decade after the first of the butterfly paintings was exhibited, Eternity benefits from the series’ maturing over a decade and incorporates a vivid and vibrant display of colors. Although each butterfly is different in shape, there is an overarching sense of balance and symmetry within the work, a tribute to the artist’s vision and the complexity of the endeavor. It is particularly impressive, given the scale of the work, to consider the level of attention placed on each butterfly’s placement within the larger group. The internal design and “flow” of the network of butterflies shimmers as each sector of color is highlighted and then seamlessly blends into the next, creating a hypnotizing web.

    Resembling the rose windows found within a Rayonnant style church (cf. Figure 2), Eternity boldly riffs on a centuries old tradition of stained glass craftsmanship, essential to the world’s oldest and most revered churches. It is of course not coincidental that the surface of the painting glistens like these rose windows, as Hirst’s conscious decision to reference the church and religion as a whole in this work fits neatly into his larger exploration of posterity in art. The remnants of the butterflies are of course dead, yet their application to the canvas’ surface is permanent and they are in a way eternal, hence the title of the work. The painting then functions as both a literal and metaphorical representation of life and death, and perhaps what comes after, but more importantly, Hirst attempts to bi-pass the restrictions of the words “life” and “death” by immortalizing his butterflies, making them eternal. In this way, Hirst engages himself in a conversation that has its roots in the oldest religious iconography of Western art – creating an object that has the potential to live on forever.

    Perhaps one of the most significant and recognized images in this tradition is Leonardo DaVinci’s, The Last Supper, 1495-97/8 (cf. Figure 3), which draws a parallel not only in its central religious symbolism and “eternal” presence, but also in its composition. As in Hirst’s, Eternity, the exaggerated horizontal perspective of the work and defined angles within The Last Supper, create a central focal point that echoes the multi-colored circle and cross-pattern found in Eternity. It is this compositional focal point that the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to, creating a central energy, one that is transformative and powerful. From this circle and cross, the work radiates with color, consuming the canvas from side to side and top to bottom.

    Hirst’s fascination with, and belief that, art is the only thing truly eternal;
    not religion, not medicine, is implicit and important when considering Eternity. This attempt to capture something timeless in a work of art is particularly ambitious given that Hirst does not focus on one singular subject or persona to assist in this effort, as in DaVinci’s, The Last Supper or Francis Bacon’s, Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953 (cf. Figure 4). He rather opts for a less obvious, more contemplative approach, centering the work on the duality of life and death, and his own struggle with the limitations of religion. It is this larger idea of mortality that is most striking in Eternity. We as viewers are fortunate enough to consider our own mortality while viewing such a magnificent piece. The elegance and symbolic power of Eternity is unmistakable, and it is difficult to discuss the work as anything less than that of a masterpiece within Hirst’s larger body of work.

  • 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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Butterflies and gloss household paint on canvas.
84 x 210 in. (213.4 x 533.4 cm).

£2,500,000 - 3,500,000 ‡♠

Sold for £4,724,000

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Evening Sale
13 October 2007, 4pm