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Papilio Ulysses

February 27, 2009 Art 1 Comment

Up for sale at Sotheby’s upcoming, March 18th, 2009 Contemporary Art Auction (Sale D09001) is this beautiful piece by Damien Hirst, Papilo Ulysses (Lot 111). According to the description it is 84″ by 84″ and is made of butterflies and household gloss on canvas. Executed in 2008. Pre-estimate range: 650-850K USD.>

The details are amazing.




From the final series of Hirst’s butterfly wing pieces and executed before the seminal Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale, Papilio Ulysses is a uniquely powerful work, both in scale and execution. With its literal and iconographic description of this spectacular butterfly from Australia, the painting is a seven-foot monument to Hirst’s cycle of life philosophy. Literally the sum of its parts, the vast image of the Papilio Ulysses is itself composed of thousands of butterfly wings, whose motionless forms have been united to breathe life into a vital contemporary work.


In the present work, Hirst chooses to represent a particular species of butterfly, the Papilio Ulysses. In doing so, he consciously references one of Greek mythology’s most ubiquitous figures; a particularly potent combination of subject and substance, given the prevalence of the mosaic in the iconography of ancient Greek and Roman life. Yet Hirst’s painting does far more than merely acknowledge a tradition of Western Art. By selecting such iridescent natural materials, and amplifying their aesthetic impact through the judicious use of pure white gloss, the artist emboldens nature’s rich tapestry. With Papilio Ulysses, we are simultaneously faced with the spectacles of both death and artistic creation: the monumental form of the butterfly before us grants immortality to those that perished in its creation.


The monochrome butterfly canvases were first exhibited in his In and Out of Love exhibition of 1991 at the Woodstock Gallery in London. This was one of the artist’s most important installations, a tropical environment complete with live butterflies and monochrome canvases. Focusing upon their tragically short lives and alluding to the pointlessness and inherent fragility of human existence, Hirst fastened pupae ready to hatch on white monochrome canvases in the upstairs gallery space, with flowers and sugar-water on shelves attached to the bottom of paintings to sustain the butterflies once they had emerged. As the real butterflies flew around the gallery space upstairs, it seemed as if the butterflies below had alighted upon the different coloured monochrome canvases lining the walls before dying and falling to the floor. Their lifespan from birth to death was spent on and around the canvases, linking them to Hirst’s work both physically and conceptually. As Hirst recalls, the effect was, “More real than de Kooning, where colour leaps off the canvas and flies around the room” (the artist in: Damien Hirst, I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with Everyone, One to one, Always, Forever, London 1997, p. 120).


In the butterfly paintings, as is the case with Hirst’s finest work, the underlying concept is often complex, but the vehicle he uses to carry these ideas is characterised by an overriding freshness and vitality. The butterfly for Hirst holds considerable iconographic power and meaning. As he explained, “You need to find universal triggers, everyone’s frightened of glass, everyone’s frightened of sharks, everyone loves butterflies” (Ibid., p. 132). Butterfly paintings can be read as a development from abstract monochrome painting, long seen as the essence of purity in art and the location for art as a form of minimised ritual. In Hirst’s butterfly gloss and grid paintings, the monochrome is adapted, becoming a commentary on contemporary existence. By attaching butterflies to paintings, the purity of the flat surface is transformed into a beautiful object.



The appearance of Papilio Ulysses changes when viewed from different distances and perspectives. From afar, the individual wings resemble jewel-like tesserae in a mosaic, brimming with azurite, pearl and ebony hues, each intense colour subservient to the chromatic design of the overarching composition. The blue butterflies, with iridescent wings as rich in hue as lapis-lazuli, reflect the light to such a degree that the surface scintillates and shimmers, so that the butterfly image reflects and refracts colour as if it were alive. Up close, the individual specimens become discernible. A panoply of different species – some large some small, some brightly coloured, others chosen for their calming opalescence – seem fragile and painfully mortal, enshrined in household gloss. For Hirst, this moment of realisation contains the oxymoronic beauty of horror, and horror of beauty. In a complex echo of the cyclical nature of life on earth, the caterpillar dies in its chrysalis, and is reborn as a butterfly. This delicate creature dies, but in doing so gives birth to a beautiful object, the work of art. As ever in Hirst’s work, beauty is laced with death. From the empty shells of dead butterflies Hirst has created an object of extraordinary, almost totemic, power which eloquently encapsulates the precepts underpinning his art.

Link: Sotheby’s, Lot 111, Sale D09001

Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. Tom Humes says:

    Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

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