Damien Hirst first used butterflies in an early work, In and Out of Love (1991), which focused on the brevity of the life cycle in a matter-of-fact and clinically detached manner. Comprising an installation, the work was made up of two floors filled with brightly colored monochrome canvases that simulated the exotic flora of a tropical rainforest. Hundreds of pupae, left within this environment, proceeded to hatch into butterflies that flitted around their faux-habitat, and eventually died and fell into decay. Some butterflies ended up on the colored canvases, sticking to their wet surfaces, and unwittingly giving rise to works of art. In this evolution, Hirst exposed the simultaneous beauty and horror of life and its inevitable conclusion in death. He also displayed a means of longevity through art: the butterflies, although dead, became part of an object of art, which in Western society is so hallowed that it is preserved for immortality.
Stating, "I am going to die and I want to live forever. I can't escape the fact, and I can't let go of the desire", Hirst unflinchingly captures the universal paradox that governs human experience. Much of his work reflects an obsession with mortality. Citing the tradition of memento mori, his dead animals serve as modern day Vanitas objects, serving to remind man of the transience of his earthly life. His work with insects in particular, derives from a tradition of 17th century Dutch still-life paintings of fruits and flowers. Amidst exotic blooms, butterflies would be invoked as short-lived creatures whose corporeal beauty, like the flowers they feasted on, would soon decay. Within the abundance of overripe produce, worms would linger and dig cavities, to warn against the momentary pleasures of the flesh. Hirst renders these paintings three-dimensional, replacing illusion with organic "found objects". In doing so, he challenged the boundaries between art and science, high culture and the everyday banal.
Hirst resuscitated his work with butterflies in 2001, rendering works such as Beauty and the Beast (which also uses flies) a year later. Rather than leave the placement of the insects to random chance as he had in In and Out of Love, he created large diamond shaped canvases to which he attached them in a deliberate manner, using a symmetrical and intricate pattern resembling Eastern mosaic inlays. While the earlier work removed the artist's hand, the present work involves meticulous craftsmanship, and Hirst, ever aware of the artist's role, recasts himself in an almost decorative role.
Even though his materials are governed by organic processes, order trumps chaos in the present work. Hirst suggests man's endless need to impose organization on an otherwise random universe that he does not control. By channeling his highly structured efforts into art, he tries to ensure his presence in the annals of history, which is in itself man's way of ensuring the memory of the long-gone past.
Beauty and the Beast captures the co-existence of beauty and horror as one and the same. The butterfly canvas is kaleidoscopic in its myriad of colors and scalloped shapes, and the fly canvas, although starker, has a dark, imposing presence redolent of Frank Stella's breakthrough Black Paintings of 1958-60. However, on closer inspection both works are replete with representational imagery: the hairy centers of the butterflies reveal themselves in relief and the flies, like staring at a car crash, unsightly, appear with all their goggle eyes, grayish black wings and spindly legs. The reaction is visceral as one recoils from the shock of the initially captivating works. In his typically visually arresting way, Hirst confronts the viewer with the realization of the closeness of splendor and repugnance in art, life and death. He also magically conveys how death can be strangely beautiful even if quite gruesome on close examination, and how it can be transmuted into art, thereby securing an afterlife for its unfortunate victims, who in time, will include all of us.
Engaging his viewers, Hirst confronts the everyman with existential doubts that he may not wish to think about. An iconoclast of the first order, he makes important works that recast fundamental questions concerning the meaning of life, the existence of God and the limits of death, in paradoxically the most factual and unorthodox way.