Damien Hirst's art deals with life and death in ways arguably more direct than any previous artist. His fascination with life cycles and the inevitability of death began with the incorporation in his works of various living and notoriously, dead, animals and insects. This has ranged from the preserved shark and farmyard animals to the photographs of mutilated corpses; from the life-cycle works involving the birth and death of insects to his poetic butterfly works. In Oo You Are Lovely, executed in 1998, the radiant colours of real butterflies burst from the bright blue background with a vibrancy that speaks of life and joy. The butterfly is a creature of legendary beauty, and here Hirst has eschewed the use of substitutes or representations to pin them to the surface. However the viewer cannot avoid the fact that these creatures are dead, lifeless. The butterfly has traditionally been a symbol of resurrection in Renaissance painting, its metamorphosis from cocoon to exquisitely delicate creature destined to fly away full of symbolic potential. And it is their fragility, their apparent ephemerality, that makes their survival in the world something of a miracle.
Hirst tends to discuss his butterfly paintings in terms of love, and indeed their titles usually involve love including his installation featuring live butterflies, In and Out of Love. The butterflies remind one of the "the ideal (birthday card) kind of love". (D. Hirst, in: i want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London 1997, p. 118.) Here the title, Oo You Are Lovely, is delibarately more like an echo of a cheeky seaside postcard or a Carry-On film, than a profound comment on the nature of love, and seems delightfully at odds with the brilliant beauty of the butterflies, trapped in the bright household paint, domesticated forever. The title in fact is totally at odds with the superior and rare beauty of the butterflies. They are stuck now and cannot escape - a comment perhaps on man's need to capture beauty and own it, no matter what the cost:
"There's something sexy about it... It seems like something to do with girls. Kind of. Or an aspect of girls. Something about putting a pin through that kind of beauty. Trying to keep something beautiful like that for ever. It's like in a relationship: do you want a relationship with a beautiful person - someone who looks beautiful; an accessory, straight out of Vogue? Or do you want a relationship with someone who is alive and obviously dying? I know what I want. I want both." (D. Hirst, in: D. Hirst & G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 21.)
In a sense, Hirst's butterfly paintings are beyond realism. Oo You Are Lovely consists of a lurid, sky-like background with butterflies attached. Instead of merely painting butterflies, he has used the real thing, their glorious coloured wings singing out from the surface. This appears to be a strange, morbid take on colourism taken to an extreme limit, as he himself stated: "I wanted these paintings to be more real than a de Kooning painting, where the colour leaps off the canvas and flies around." (D. Hirst, in: op. cit., 1997, p. 120.) This exploration of art and artifice, with the clearly unnatural 'sky' background, is filled with a deceptive sense of the synthetic, despite the use of real butterflies. Hirst manages both to celebrate love through the beauty of the butterflies, and to seriously question the entire cosmetic notion of romance and therefore of beauty, love and life itself.