Contemporary Art

Damien Hirst’s Butterflies- from Tea-trays to Mandalas

Isla Phillips-Ewen 24 September 2019 min Read

Damien Hirst – a prominent Young British Artist (YBAs) and now a billionaire – creates sculptures, paintings and drawings. In all of these forms his work challenges the boundaries between art, science and religion. Mandalas is now open at the White Cube Mason’s Yard, London (20 September – 2 November 2019). The show explores questions of death, life and beauty and puts at the centre one of Hirst’s favourites motifs – the butterfly.

Damien Hirst 'Dromenon' 2019
Damien Hirst, Dromenon from Butterfly Mandalas, 2019, currently on display at the White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, England.

Most people know Hirst because of his Natural History series. These artworks present bodies suspended in formaldehyde, creating a “zoo of dead animals.” Hirst’s questioning of biological existence and death takes a literal form with Mandalas.

Damien Hirst, Mother and Child (Divided) from the Natural History Series, 1993,  Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd, currently on display at Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, Norway.

The Mandala

Mandalas are geometric designs that aid the viewer’s meditation. They try to represent a microcosm of the universe – Hirst is not an artist who shies from daring ideas. Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Shinto traditions all use Mandalas. This means that the Butterfly Mandalas (in contrast to the Kaleidoscope paintings) link to Eastern rather than Western traditions.

Damien Hirst's Butterflies
Damien Hirst, Cardinal, 2019, exhibiting at the White Cube Mason’s Yard.

Hirst’s new Butterfly Mandalas are large scale concentric paintings featuring one of his most well known motifs, the butterfly. The Mandalas, on huge glossy canvases, are concentric patterns of hundreds of butterfly wings. The predominantly circular pieces are incredible in their intricacy. The complex detail becomes more mesmerising as a result of the particular colour palette of each piece.

Butterflies: a Hirstian Motif

Damien Hirst, Baptist, 2019, exhibiting at the White Cube Mason’s Yard.

The butterfly retains its form in death and so it embodies the fascination around mortality. The Greeks used the butterfly to symbolise the soul and in Christian imagery the butterfly is an image of the resurrection. So, it is no wonder that butterflies fascinate Damien Hirst, who has described the butterfly as a “universal trigger.”

“Hirst’s prolonged exploration of the life cycle of the butterfly … is one of the most thoroughgoing and many-sided conceptual projects sustained by any contemporary artist.”

Rod Mengham, in the catalogue to accompany the exhibition

Damien Hirst's Butterflies
Damien Hirst, close up view of Deity, 2019, exhibiting at the White Cube Mason’s Yard.

Butterfly Mandalas literally gloss and pin back fragility. Stuck into bright and popping household gloss paint the butterflies become eternalised. Each Mandala draws the eye to the single, small, butterfly at their centre. The viewer is forced to meditate upon the bodiless butterfly and all the ideas that it suggests.

“I’ve got an obsession with death … but I think it’s like a celebration of life rather than something morbid.”

Damien Hirst cited in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, ‘On the Way to Work’ (Faber and Faber, 2001), 21.

Their wings have been dissected from their bodies, but are placed to give an impression of their former corporeality. Like the background paint, the colours of the wings shine bright. Exaggerating this, the uniform placement of multiple butterflies (each ring the same species) heightens the sense of idealised beauty. Some of the butterflies are very large and obviously rare. Alongside these are more common admiral butterflies; altogether the wings in their mandala arrangement become transfigured into something extraordinary.

Damien Hirst's Butterflies
Exhibition view: Damien Hirst and Science Ltd, DACS 2019. photo by the White Cube (Ollie Hammick).

The Kaleidoscope Series

Hirst has worked with butterflies consistently since as early as 1989. His iconic Kaleidoscope series (2001 – present) also use butterflies. Victorian tea trays were the inspiration for their design but their dramatic titles make them much more philosophical.

Damien Hirst, I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds from Kaleidoscope Paintings, 2006, photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. 

The Kaleidoscope pieces have spiritual titles, some from the book of Psalms. Many deliberately evoke the grandeur of stained-glass windows.

Damien Hirst, It’s a Wonderful World – the first Kaleidoscope Painting, 2001, image from Gagosian Gallery © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

The Mandala series once again uses some religious titles but in a possibly less pointed manner, like Deity, The Creator, Martyr, Transfiguration, and Baptists. Other titles of the Mandalas include Dromenon, Obscuritas, and Unveiling, for example. Possibly intended to direct the viewer’s meditation?


In contrast to the Kaleidoscope and Mandala series‘, Entomology Paintings, which Hirst has been working on since 2009, take their names from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Entomology Paintings feature not just butterflies but hundreds of insects.

Damien Hirst, Limbo from Entomology Paintings, 2009, photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. 

“Beautiful and horrific at the same time, you can’t help but be drawn into it, seduced by it, but you want to run away from it.”

Damien Hirst in conversation with Tim Marlow, ‘Entomology Cabinets and Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings and Colour Charts’ (Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. / White Cube, 2013)

Damien Hirst's Butterflies
Damien Hirst, Capaneus from Entomology Paintings, 2012, Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. 

Hirst’s art often necessitates the death of something in order to for it to be looked at. This is not always well received. Like many Young British Artists, his art provokes debate.

Young British Artist to Rich British Artists

Freeze, 1988

In 1988 Damien Hirst was still a student at Goldsmiths. It was in his second year that he organised one of the major initial exhibitions for the YBAs. At the Surrey Docks in London the exhibition Freeze ran from 6 August to 29 September 1988. Sixteen artists showed their work to an impressive calibre of critics.

Damien Hirst, Edge from the Spot Series and first shown at Freeze – directly painted onto the warehouse wall, 1988, Photographed by Ed Woodman © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.


In March 1991 Hirst presented a thirteen-foot tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde at The Saatchi Gallery’s YBA 1 exhibition. It generated colossal press attention and arguably pushed the boundaries of contemporary art. This was the beginning of the Natural History series that truly propelled Hirst into fame.

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. 

In more recent years Hirst’s art has become known for making money as well as being shocking.

For the Love of God

Damien Hirst, With Dead Head, 1991, Photographed by André Morin-Le-Jeune © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

32 platinum plates, 8,601 pavé-set diamonds and human teeth are the materials in For the Love of God. While Hirst was growing up in Leeds, saying he wanted to become an artist, his mother would exclaim: “For the love of God, what are you going to do next!” The performative sale of the diamond skull at Sothebys auction house led to discussions about the concept of media art.

“Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative – revolutionary even.”

Germaine Greer, writing for the Guardian, 22 September 2008.

Hirst’s dealings with death have always remained a constant, while his monetary value continues to soar.

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007, Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

The Mandalas exhibition is not overtly shocking. It doesn’t do anything too wild – like 2016’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (which was described as “art for a post-truth world” and comes with a documentary available on Netflix). Nonetheless, the Mandalas are totally Hirst and totally captivating.


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