Stunning art by Damien Hirst mixes beauty and death


New Delhi : Death, decay, religion and life – 14 examples of the favoured themes of British artist Damien Hirst left the audience stunned as global auctioneer Sotheby’s unveiled them here.

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It was an eye-opener for most of those who thronged to the preview Wednesday evening. The reaction ranged from gasps, amazement, downright, appreciation, a slight revulsion to ecstasy.

This is the first time show in India by Hirst, arguably the world’s top contemporary artist. The collection is part of an exhibition – “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” – the first major auction of new works by the artist, which will be unveiled Sep 15 in London.

The show is the culmination of two years of creative activity by the artist. On display were seven of Hirst’s famous butterfly art that used live butterflies on metal and canvas surface to form intricate patterns that were at times dense and at times, minimal.

Three “spin drawings” – chiefly compositions in rainbow colours on spinning surfaces, a sculpture of a black angel stripped to her skin and bones, a composition of a skull, pill boxes and pills from his “Medicine Chest” series, a canvas of spot drawing of coloured polka dots and a two-part series of enlarged and embellished cancer cells as seen under a microscope – made up the collection.

The auction house did not bring to the show Hirst’s famous animal installations – dead animals preserved in formaldehyde. The animals include a dead cow, and the firm was perhaps wary of the possible reaction in India.

Three Biblical paintings titled “Psalm 27”, “Psalm 33” and “Psalm 9” stole the show, along with a canvas, “New Gold and Silver”, “No Life”, “The Eye of Judas” and “Argo’s Riches”.

While the series of Psalm paintings used brightly-coloured butterfly wings against a backdrop of Psalm texts with metallic paint on canvas boards to create concentric religious motifs, the standalone butterfly works used “dead” butterflies with wings in shimmering shades of blue, red, white and yellow to convey the cycle of transient life and its perpetuity in death.

The experts at Sothbey’s chose to describe the butterfly as a metaphor of the ephemeral beauty of life.

“Damien’s butterfly series predates his formaldehyde series. He held an exhibition in Woodstock Gallery in London in 1991 where he had put up monochrome canvases on the walls and let loose live butterflies to fly around the hall to match the colours on his canvas.

“Many of the butterflies died in course of the exhibition and that is what Damien wanted. He wanted to capture the beautiful but the short life cycle of butterflies,” James Sevier, deputy director of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, told IANS.

According to Sevier, Hirst’s formaldehyde art was an extension of his butterfly art.

“In 1992, he held an exhibition where animals and butterflies were preserved in formaldehyde,” he said.

In his Psalm paintings, the butterfly wings are aligned such that it gives his canvases the look of church windows made of stained glass.

Hirst’s life has influenced his art. Born in Bristol in 1965, the artist had to contend with separation from his father, a motor mechanic, when he was 12. He battled a prolonged drug and alcohol problem and was even arrested for shoplifting. While a student, the artist had his first placement at a mortuary – an experience that influenced his later themes and material.

“In 1988, Hirst made his spot painting – a series of circular coloured dots on a canvas, and followed it up with more in 1990. They were part of his pharmaceutical art series through which he tried to drive home the message that people must have more faith in medicines, which like art can heal,” said Scott Nussbaum, specialist in contemporary art.

The artist, according to Nussbaum, was obsessed with medicines and human decay. In 1992, he created “A” series of paintings named after drugs that began with the alphabet A for all types of afflictions.

A spot painting (from auction lot 202)- titled “Rubidium Chromate”, a composition of household gloss on canvas – along with “Skull with Pills” and a study of enlarged cancer cells, “Second Biopsy Series”, in diptych, ink and household gloss on canvas and embellished with scalpel blades, razor blades and religious medals brought the author’s obsession with disease and medicine chests to the show.

The hideously beautiful works mostly captured death and its symbols – glorifying them, beautifying them, and almost giving them a virtuous quality with the larger-than-life manifestations of man’s most subliminal fear.

The works on display in the capital are priced between $50,000 and $595,000.