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I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds

I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds
signed three times, titled and dated 'Damien Hirst "I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds" D Hirst D Hirst 2006' (on the reverse)
butterflies and household gloss on canvas
84 1⁄8 x 210in. (213.4 x 533.4cm.)
Executed in 2006
Gagosian Gallery, London.
Private Collection, USA (acquired from the above in 2007).
Anon. sale, Christie’s London, 14 October 2010, lot 17.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
J. Whitehead, Creating Interior Atmosphere: Mise-en-scène and Interior Design, London 2018, fig. 3.3 (installation view at Tate Modern in 2012 illustrated in colour, p. 44).
London, Tate Modern, Damien Hirst, 2012, p. 234 (illustrated in colour, pp. 144-145).

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

A centrepiece of the artist’s landmark career survey at Tate Modern, London in 2012—and unseen in public since that time—I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds (2006) is the most spectacular butterfly painting Damien Hirst has ever created, and one of the very largest. Across a canvas more than five metres in width, two concentric explosions of vibrant, iridescent wings burst forth against a bright red backdrop. In brilliant yellows, metallic blues, blacks, greens and veined, marbled patterns, they are arranged in twin kaleidoscopes of radial symmetry, glowing with the light and colour of an immense stained-glass window. Their splendour contrasts with the morbid undertones of the work’s creation, crystallising the dualities that lie at the heart of Hirst’s outlook. Awe-inspiring and disquieting in equal measure, its title invokes one of the most infamous quotations of the twentieth century: a line from the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text, used by J. Robert Oppenheimer in reference to his invention of the atomic bomb. In I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, Hirst uses the visual language of the divine to touch on the majesty and terror of forces beyond human control.

I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds represents the climax of a journey that began with In and Out of Love, Hirst’s seminal installation at the Woodstock Street Gallery, London, in 1991. There, pupae were affixed to primed canvases, gradually hatching into live butterflies that flew freely through the gallery space. A downstairs room featured paintings with dead butterflies entombed in their surfaces. Those works led to a series of butterfly monochromes pursued through the following decade, with the insects scattered—as if caught mid-flight—across fields of pristine gloss pigment. During the early 2000s Hirst took these ideas further with his Kaleidoscope series, which was sparked by the sight of a Victorian tea-tray decorated with butterfly wings under glass. The present work, incorporating more than 2,700 butterflies, is the ultimate example of these refractive, densely-patterned compositions.

Across his butterfly paintings, Hirst explored the enduring paradox of beauty in death that has long captured his imagination. Not just exquisite and fragile, the insects also embody—in the journey from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly—the mysterious process of metamorphosis. Rich in cultural symbolism, they allow Hirst to stage grand memento mori whose darkness glimmers with life and hope. In Christian imagery butterflies signify the resurrection: in Greek antiquity their wings were an attribute of Psyche, the soul. ‘The death of an insect’, Hirst says, ‘… still has this really optimistic beauty of a wonderful thing’ (D. Hirst, quoted in Damien Hirst: The Agony and the Ecstasy, exh. cat. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples 2004, p. 83).

Hirst’s Kaleidoscopes represented a significant formal development in his butterfly paintings. Where he had previously worked with live insects or interred entire dead specimens in paint, in these works Hirst used only their wings. ‘Butterflies are beautiful,’ he recalled a friend saying, ‘but it’s a shame they have disgusting hairy bodies in the middle’ (D. Hirst, quoted in I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, rev. ed., London 2005, p. 135). By isolating the wings, he was able to express a vision of more rarefied, idealised beauty, and to deploy their natural symmetry in ever-more complex configurations. The present work’s patterns are hypnotically intricate. The right-hand circle radiates out in 24 lines of symmetry; the left doubles in density with 48. Broadly expanding in size from each centre, their concentric rings are mosaiced with internal pairings of smaller wings, reflecting one another at a dizzying array of angles. Where the orbits collide at the midpoint of the canvas, they become a jumbled terrazzo of conflicting schemes. The nucleus of each circle is a single pair of small wings suspended in space: a butterfly without its body, at the heart of a supernova.

In his career-long focus on mortal themes, Hirst has often investigated religion, science and art as intersecting belief systems. Religion holds the promise of eternal life; science seeks to prolong and optimise our earthly existence; art can extend beyond the maker’s death, granting a certain form of immortality. The butterfly—enshrined as in a cathedral window and preserved as in a lepidopterist’s cabinet—touches on all these ideas. Roberta Smith has called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Hirst’s infamous shark of 1991, ‘simultaneously life and death incarnate in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended and silent, in its tank. It gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form’ (R. Smith, ‘Just When You Thought It Was Safe’, The New York Times, 16 October 2007). The present work—its title conjuring Oppenheimer’s horror and wonder at the enormity of what he had unleashed—speaks to the same deep, primal drives that are within each of us. ‘We knew the world would not be the same’, said Oppenheimer in his much-cited 1965 television interview. ‘A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita … “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.’

With its vast, panoramic scale, I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds invokes the aesthetic of the sublime: an intertwined experience of beauty and terror, where the viewer is overwhelmed by an object’s magnitude. The grandeur of a cathedral’s interior might inspire such a response. So too might a dramatic landscape, as explored in the 19th-century paintings of the German Romantics. The Abstract Expressionists in post-war New York—particularly Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko—saw their work in the same terms. These artists aimed to provoke intense emotional reactions, and their huge, immersive ‘colour fields’, for some, offer an almost religious viewing experience. It was notably during the dawn of the Atomic Age that the Abstract Expressionists emerged. The existential tenor of their art was driven, in part, by the anxieties of this uncertain new era. ‘Modern man is his own terror’, wrote Newman in 1946 (B. Newman, ‘Art of the South Seas’, Studio International 179, February 1970, p. 70). Rothko said that he wanted to create ‘a presence, so when you turned your back to the painting, you would feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back’ (M. Israel, quoted by J. E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, New York 1993, p. 275). It is an image matched by the blazing intensity of Hirst’s many-winged masterpiece.

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