From a distance, Damien Hirst's Holocaust, 2003, appears as a captivating black void. Upon closer investigation the attractive and lustrous surface becomes clear: thousands of dead flies compactly layered upon the canvas. These infinitesimal insects conspire to form a densely encrusted panel, in which glazy black bodies and subtle translucent wings amalgamate to create a captivating visceral texture. Holocaust was included in Hirst’s 2004 major retrospective “The Agony and the Ecstasy” at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, among other fly paintings such as Typhoid, AIDS, and Genocide. The paintings were identical in size to the four Medicine Cabinets Hirst selected for his Goldsmith’s degree show in 1989. The counterpoint to Hirst’s renowned butterfly paintings, the fly paintings present a vivid and fascinating contemplation of some of Hirst’s most decisive ideas: life and death, sublimity and fear, and the inescapable condition of beauty and horror that lies at the very fundamental of existence.
Hirst’s first fly painting, Untitled Monochrome (Without Emotion), 1997, inaugurated the medium; he created the work by gluing thousands of flies’ bodies onto a canvas. Five years after making the initial piece and inspired by Richard Serra’s black paintstick drawings, Hirst returned to the fly paintings. Refining the fabrication process, he began a series of works using resin. “I think I am just looking at things from very far away,” said Hirst about his motivation for the works. “You get a kind of black... I think what makes me ever do anything is if there is something kind of humorous, which is always good. You do it for senseless reasons, but then you find something out that is really good.” (D. Hirst, quoted in interview with M. D'Argenzio in The Agony and the Ecstasy: Selected Works from 1989-2004, exh. cat., Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, 2004, p. 94). For the creation of Holocaust, the canvas was primed with black acrylic primer before the dead houseflies and clear resin mixture were poured onto it. This method of application resulted in an uneven surface with different levels caused by the different fly parts. The resin mixture increases the natural glossiness of the flies, resulting in a sticky surface coating reminiscent of tar. Hirst has compared the relationship between life and death to that between the colors white and black. (Adrian Dannatt, “Damien Hirst: Life’s like this, then it stops,” Flash Art, no .169, March–April 1993, p. 63.
Flies initially presented in one of Hirst’s most famous and groundbreaking works, A Thousand Years and Hundred Years, both created in 1990 during the early stage of his career, as an expression of monotonous and meaningless mortality. In A Thousand Years a glass-walled vitrine hosts a rotting cow’s head where a colony of flies feed, breed and potentially die on an Insect-O-Cutor suspended over the head. These works positioned the common insects as metaphors for the natural patterns of life. "I think it was Thomas Hobbes who said people are like flies brushed off a wall. I like that metaphorically. Your whole life could be like points in space, like nearly nothing. If you stand back far enough you think people are just like flies, like the cycle of a fly is like your own life. When you make that connection with the paintings... it is like all the people in the world who die in a hundred years. That amount of death is pretty black,” Hirst said. (D. Hirst, quoted in interview with M. D'Argenzio in The Agony and the Ecstasy: Selected Works from 1989-2004, exh. cat., Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, 2004, p. 94). In the fly paintings, this type of dialogue between the individual and the collective mass is taken to a new level, with each fly’s uniqueness subsumed by the overall pictorial effect of abstract monochrome. Certainly, Holocaust subverts the aura of introspective contemplation conventionally associated with the monochrome, reorganizing the canvas, as a unity that pulsates with the traces of a thousand minuscule creatures.
Hirst’s specific fascination with insects has given growth to a number of other significant series within his production, including his extensive butterfly paintings, alongside his more recent Entomology works, in which a plethora of invertebrate species are organized into complex patterns upon the canvas. As is typical of the artist, however, the beauty and gravity of his attempt are joined by an almost comic incentive. In this regard, the fly paintings exemplify the sense of drama for which Hirst's work is universally famous, staging their own poignant brand of tragic comedy. They are touched with a sense of romanticism that complements their impenetrable black intensity. Engaging his viewers, Holocaust, an iconoclast of the first order, recast essential questions concerning the meaning of life, the existence of God and the limits of death, in paradoxically the most accurate and unorthodox way.