Butterflies and household gloss on canvas
Four parts, each 213,4 x 213,4 cm
From a distance the large painting in four parts is beautiful and harmonious. Four identical swarms of butterflies in seductive colours have settled on four large canvases in strong poster-like colours. The result is highly decorative.
Closer scrutiny reveals that the butterflies are not painted on the canvases. They are real, dead butterflies that have been stuck to the wet paint. Suddenly the four large surfaces look like a beautiful, but banal and devious death trap.
WHO’S AFRAID OF POP?
The Four Elements (Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, Green and Blue) is a modern interpretation of the classic Vanitas motif with an extra dimension added. The painting not only represents life in its transience; death is palpably present in the work. With this Hirst infringes one of the great taboos in art: for centuries artists have reproduced reality, but have not attempted to re-create it. Hirst does. Much of his art challenges the boundaries between art and reality, and he cruelly and beautifully stages the shock effect that ensues.
The work is a deliberately banal pop painting. The colours are extremely appealing, and Hirst knows it. He says of his colours: “I believe painting and all art should be ultimately uplifting for a viewer. I love colour. I feel it inside me.”
The first part of the title of the work is a reference to the classical and mythological elements fire, water, earth and air, which in some places are associated with particular colours. The second part of the title refers to the American artist Barnett Newman’s series of abstract paintings in large, vibrant colour fields, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue from the 1960s. Hirst ironically associates his own painting with modern, abstract colour-field painting, which among other things uses colour as an instrument for scanning the space and surface of the canvas.
EVERYBODY LOVES BUTTERFLIES
Like colours, butterflies speak directly to our senses and emotions. They are beautiful, innocent and fragile – and an effective way of grabbing and keeping our attention. Everybody loves butterflies.
At the same time they involve a number of symbolic meanings that have also been used by other artists (e.g. Peter Holst Henckel). With their transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly they symbolize immortality and rebirth, and have been taken to represent the soul and the psyche.
Hirst thus emphasizes how we link our own experiences of the work with the symbolism of the butterflies. This is as much about the representation of the object as the object itself. By using readymades (already-existing objects) Hirst challenges the relationship between reality and artifice, staging the fine line between real and homespun philosophy.
The butterfly is one of the motifs Hirst has worked longest with in his paintings. He began working with it in the early 1990s in his first solo exhibition, “In and Out of Love”, in a series of works that featured both living and dead butterflies. In one installation Hirst had a large number of radiantly coloured tropical butterflies fluttering around. During the exhibition more and more of the butterflies died, gradually covering the floor with a tapestry of thou¬sands of butterflies. Hirst has also created a succession of collages of butterfly wings, continuing his exploration of the relationship between death and aesthetics.
Damien Hirst’s art in generalIn boundary-breaking ways Hirst interprets the universal existential themes that run through art history. He is highly conscious of the provocative elements and exploits the spectacular to force the viewer to take a stand.
Hirst deploys the same strategy in one of his most notorious works, The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). This sculpture, with its characteristically long title, consists of a giant tiger shark caught and killed in Australia and placed in a glass case filled with formaldehyde. The shark is enormous and looks almost alive in the large tank, and at the same time alludes to the pop-culture image of sharks, as in the cult movie Jaws.
The titles are of great importance to the works. They are often long, complex and exaggeratedly philosophical. Thus Hirst complicates his artistic statements, and deliberately plays on our expectations of ‘high culture’.
DEATH IS A THRILL!
Hirst challenges our fascination with death, our fear of bodily decrepitude and our desire for health and longevity. This is why pharmaceuticals are also among his favourite motifs. Among other things he has said with reference to his interest in pharmaceuticals, laboratory equipment and medicines: “Art is like medicine, it can heal. Yet I’ve always been amazed at how people believe in medicine but don’t believe in art, without questioning either.” According to Hirst, art could benefit from aspiring to the trust and seriousness that are associated with the pharmaceutical industry.
Audience disgust is a reaction Hirst deliberately works with. We must be confronted with our own limits if we are to question how they arise and why they are defined as they are. In other words Hirst is interested in the ‘framing’ of art. We experience how art works and the frameworks that exist for its execution. Thus Hirst tackles a number of the key issues of conceptual art. The finished work of art is governed by a pre-existing idea that determines its execution and form.
Like other artists of the so-called YBA generation, Hirst is an exponent of a new attention-seeking style that makes a point of abandoning the artistic introversion of earlier times in favour of a style where artists have more and more in common with pop stars and actors.
Hirst, like other artists of his generation such as Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin, has divided critical opinion. Some critics see Hirst in terms of an avant-garde tradition that expands the boundaries of art and revitalizes fundamental philosophical and existential issues; others think Hirst not only mimics the popular culture of Hollywood; he has become that culture. Hirst vacillates between emphasizing and downplaying his seriousness as an artist. He can seem ambiguous, sincere and full of sarcasm – and all of the above.