'If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One...I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds' (Bhagavad Gita, quoted in R. Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists, trans. J. Cleugh, New York, 1958, p. 201).
Completely enveloping the viewer with its sheer epic scale and glorious burst of colour and kaleidoscopic form, the dazzling intensity of I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds is the largest-sized butterfly painting which Damien Hirst has ever created. The highly complex composition is created entirely from thousands of dead butterfly wings grazing in luscious red household gloss paint in radiating patterns of iridescence which glisten with glorious life. As such, this work and its title offer a similar philosophy to his signature work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which comprised a preserved shark in a perfect Minimalist vitrine, the outstanding beauty of the presentation seducing the viewer into thinking about the terror of its depiction. Similarly here, the sublime chromatic perfection of the arrangement of butterflies incorporating a dual heart and an incredible vortex of forms, conveys an irresistible beauty and life which undercuts the horror of what we see.
Damien Hirst is an artist whose incredible gift has been to find deep poetry and philosophy for the way we live our lives in the most direct re-workings of pre-existing objects and media. Butterflies have been central to his oeuvre since he burst onto the scene in the early 1990s. For him the short lifecycle of a butterfly and the glorious colour it brings into the world and the way it animates the air in life, was the ultimate depiction of love and beauty in nature. As he has stated, 'I had them [butterflies] in my bedroom... I got wooden frames and nylon mesh and I made a huge box in my bedroom. It took up half the bedroom... I found out where you could buy the pupae and all that kind of stuff and I got them all. I got them all in my bedroom and I bred them in my bedroom. I remember it because I was so cramped. There was only room for my bed and the box, and we were in the same room (Hirst, quoted in Damien Hirst, exh.cat., Naples, 2004, p. 78). This was in preparation for one of his most important early works, In & Out of Love in 1991. For the exhibition Hirst presented a show on two levels: upstairs an environment of white monochrome paintings and downstairs, coloured monochrome paintings. In each environment, pupae hatched, butterflies were born and flew around before eventually dying on the paintings or on the floor. As he has stated: 'It was about love, kind of whether love existed or something like that. Upstairs... the white paintings were like: this is real love, it is like butterflies flying around in a good environment but inside there is no colour... When I went downstairs, I said that I wanted this to look like it was alive at one time. I want it to look like an artists studio where he had coloured canvases wet and the butterflies had landed in them... This idea of an artist trying to make a monochrome and being fucked up by flies landing in the paint... Then you get the beauty of the butterfly, but it is actually something horrible... The death of an insect that still has this really optimistic beauty of a wonderful thing (Hirst, quoted in ibid., p. 83).
This led to a group of 'butterfly paintings' in which scattered butterflies were affixed in their entirety to the picture surface. In an extension of the history of Monochrome painting in the Twentieth Century, Hirst allowed the colours of the butterfly to dictate the colours of the paintings, and quite often he left to chance their placement on the canvas simply by letting them float onto the surface and sink into the think wet gloss paint.
In 2003, Hirst took the butterfly paintings to a new level, concentrating the dazzling visual effect of their wings and creating the first of his so-called 'kaleidoscope' butterfly paintings, of which I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds is arguably the greatest example. Inspired by the rather macabre practice of Victorian Leptidopterists, who bred and arranged butterflies in certain arrangements for the purpose of understanding, Hirst began to categorise the butterflies according to colour and create astonishing compositions of great complexity involving geometric and mathematical patterns. Here he was taking the colour and form of the composition directly from the natural form of the butterflies and attempting to tame its nature. The first works were exhibited in his exhibition Romance in the Age of Uncertainty in London in 2003 and he worked vociferously on these ideas before he reached the ultimate culmination in the present work in 2006.
The title of I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds matches its radiant appearance and epic dimensions. It is based on a line from the Hindu scripture, the Bgagavad Gita. This largely takes the form of a dialogue between the Prince Arjuna and Krishna, one of the avatars or earthly manifestations of the Supreme Being, Vishnu, on the eve of a great battle. At one point, Arjuna asks to behold the god in all his glory. Accordingly, Krishna gives Arjuna divine eyes so that he will be able to look upon the form of the deity in all his might. When he has revealed himself, Vishnu declares, 'I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds'. This line took on an extra meaning in the middle of the Twentieth Century, one that is recalled by the pulsing brilliance of the dual circular composition of this picture, when it was recalled by the man dubbed the 'father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer when he witnessed the first nuclear test of the Manhattan Project in July 1945. Robert Junck, who later interviewed Oppenheimer, explained that when the explosion happened, Oppenheimer thought of the Hindu text, which he had read decades earlier in its original Sanskrit:
'A passage from the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred epic of the Hindus, flashed into his mind: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One -" Yet, when the sinister and gigantic cloud rose up in the far distance over Point Zero, he was reminded of another line from the same source: "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds" (R. Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists, trans. J. Cleugh, New York, 1958, p. 201).
Oppenheimer was horrified by the realisation of the power that he had helped to unleash upon the world, which would be demonstrated within a short time in the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, with its waves of intense colour pulsing from the dual centres, appears to be a luminous and poetic response to nuclear explosions. In its incredible symmetry and dual heart, there is even a sense in which this picture recalls scientific diagrams or the charts recording the force of an explosion as it ripples outwards.
Hirst's works often explore the sometimes shared territories of religion, science and death, and nowhere is this more clear than in I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds. Hirst has deliberately used the visual language of stained glass windows, associated with the great cathedrals of the world and therefore with Christianity and religious belief. The fear of mortality and the hope of immortality are central to religion, with the aspiration to the life everlasting, and the futility of this, as perceived by Hirst, is encompassed in I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds which is made, not of glass, but of the wings of butterflies. In this sense, the title is all the more apt, as the artist himself has woven death into the very fabric of the work. As Hirst himself has declared, 'I think I've got an obsession with death, but I think its like a celebration of life rather than something morbid. You cant have one without the other (D. Hirst & G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London, 2001, p. 21).