'[Love] seems so difficult to sustain. Love is realistic; desire is unrealistic. It's easier to blindfold yourself, change your girlfriend every 6 months and not look in the mirror than to live with someone forever and see change. Although I'm tired of the word Love, it's like 'God'. Instead of saying 'I love you', I want to say, 'I'm delighted you're alive'
(Damien Hirst quoted in Damien Hirst: No Sense of Absolute Corruption, exh. cat., London 1996, pp. 116-17).
Originally at the heart of the Saatchi Collection of Damien Hirst's works and reproduced on T-shirts for the gallery when it opened its second space at County Hall, Untitled is the first heart-shaped butterfly painting the artist ever produced. As is widely known, it was Charles Saatchi who commissioned the now legendary sculpture The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and built the world's first great collection of Damien Hirst incorporating such masterpieces as A Thousand Years, Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same direction for the purpose of Understanding alongside some of the earliest medicine cabinets, spot paintings and the first great outdoor sculpture, Hymn.
Untitled was made soon after Hirst began this now iconic series of paintings. It incorporates dead butterflies on monochrome backgrounds of household gloss paint, emanating from his now legendary installation In and Out of Love. At first glance, the soft and delicate pink heart studded with the jewel-like iridescence of the butterflies appears to offer an overdose of kitsch. But on closer examination the delicate insects are trapped in the lusciousness of the cotton-candy pink of the painted surface, their delicate wings entombed in a casing of death. This strange combination of beauty and death intrigued Hirst, who stumbled across the effect by accident, "I remember painting something white once and flies landing on it, thinking "Fuck!" but then thinking it was funny. This idea of an artist trying to make a monochrome and being fucked up by flies landing in the paint or something like that. Then you get the beauty of the butterfly, but it is actually something horrible. It is like the butterfly has flown around and died horribly in the paint. The death of an insect that still has this really optimistic beauty of a wonderful thing" (Damien Hirst quoted in Damien Hirst, exh. cat., Naples 2004, p. 83).
Like much of his most iconic work, the subject of human mortality is a central theme of Untitled. By juxtaposing the cultural connotations of life and love represented by the heart and the fleeting fragility of life, as represented by the butterflies, Hirst brings together two enduring themes of art history. Hirst interprets these universal, existential themes making sure to break every taboo in the process. He is conscious of the provocative elements and utilises controversies to force a reaction from his audience. The human desire to deny death, and the Western refusal to come to terms with its inevitability, are seen by Hirst as linked to the desire to create timeless art. In this way, Untitled explores similar grounds to Hirst's Pharmacy works. To Hirst, most works of art are self-created monuments, vain and selfish attempts on the parts of the artists to remain present in the world after death. That butterflies, whose lives are exceedingly brief, remain beautiful even afterwards, encapsulates the same drive for many artists to create a lingering testimony to their own existence. Like the sharks, cows and sheep suspended in formaldehyde, Hirst's Untitled cuts to the flawed heart of this process, illustrating the impossible attempts of art to prolong life.
Despite Damien Hirst's reputation as the enfant terrible of British art, his oeuvre is built upon a deep understanding of art and its place in history. The butterfly wings are a form of momento mori, a symbol since roman times of mortality and his use of bold monochromes and chance operations place him in the tradition of artists like Kazimir Malevich and John Cage. Hirst has an almost unrivalled ability to present some of life's most important and complex questions in the simplest and engaging way. Within its painted form Untitled encompasses questions about art, life, love and death and the fragility of life. The warm and optimistic luminescence of the surface of the present work, with its luscious paint and delicate flashes of lustrous colour, exude hope and anticipation, in the form of beauty, and fatalism, in the form of the dead insects with which Hirst has deliberately assembled this work. 'I think I've got an obsession with death,' he has said. 'But I think it's like a celebration of life rather than something morbid. You can't have one without the other' (D. Hirst & G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 21). That idea is perfectly encapsulated in the moving beauty of this monumental canvas. SJ