Midas Void
signed 'D Hirst' (on the stretcher); signed, titled and dated 'Damien Hirst 2008 Midas Void' (on the reverse)
butterflies and enamel paint on canvas
60 x 29⅞in. (152.4 x 76cm.)

Executed in 2008
Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, Sotheby's London, 16 September 2008, lot 240.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
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Lot Essay

Part of the Young British Artist generation that emerged during the 1990s, Damien Hirst has a complex relationship with art-historical tradition. On one hand, his use of dead insects and animals preserved in formaldehyde initially seemed to propose a clean break with the past, promising a new, conceptual future for art-making. On the other hand, his works are ultimately concerned with grandiloquent, age-old themes: life, death, religion, science and transcendence. From Biblical references to modern-day vanitas motifs, Hirst’s practice addresses many of the same questions that occupied his Renaissance ancestors, offering visceral meditations on the nature and purpose of human existence. The artist counts Rembrandt, Goya and Titian among his influences, as well as the sculptures of Bernini and Michelangelo; ‘they stand above everyone else, really’, he claims (D. Hirst, quoted in A. Cole, ‘Blossoming artist’, The Art Newspaper, 1 May 2019).

Executed in 2008, Midas Void is an exquisite example of Hirst’s butterfly paintings. Situated at the very heart of his oeuvre, these works evolved from his seminal 1991 installation In and Out of Love, which occupied two floors of a former London travel agency. Upstairs, the artist created an environment for butterflies, where they were able to hatch, fly, mate and lay eggs. Downstairs, the bodies of dead butterflies were affixed to monochrome canvases, preserved forever in smooth, glossy perfection. The installation gave rise to one of his most important bodies of work: in Midas Void, the winged creatures form an abstract, jewel-like pattern, poised as if mid-flight yet ultimately held in perpetual stasis. Like King Midas – who, in Greek mythology, turned everything he touched to gold – Hirst performs an act of transfiguration, issuing a poignant reminder of the fragile line between life and death. As Aeneas Bastian has written, ‘The butterflies move between this life and the beyond … they die so as not to perish’ (A. Bastian, quoted in Damien Hirst: Void, exh. cat., Heiner Bastian, Berlin, 2007, p. 16).

In many ways, the work represents a contemporary memento mori. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the expression – meaning ‘remember you must die’ – came to refer to a genre of still-life painting populated by skulls, candles, hourglasses and decaying fruit or flowers. These symbols, much like Hirst’s butterflies, were designed to invoke the transience of life, drawing attention to the inevitable passage of time. While his forebears perceived death in terms of divine judgement, however, Hirst placed his faith in the power of art itself. The butterflies do not ascend to celestial glory, but are instead suspended within the vast, empty void of the canvas. Their afterlife is pictorial, rather than spiritual. Where artists such as Dürer and Collier used painting to inspire meditation on human mortality, Hirst uses it as a vehicle for resurrection in and of itself: through art alone are the butterflies reborn.

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