I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, 2006

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Damien Hirst

I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds

2006

Butterflies and household gloss on canvas

2134 x 5334 mm | 84 x 210 in

Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Exhibitions (1)

Solo Exhibition - 2012
Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom

Context

“I’ve got an obsession with death … But I think it’s like a celebration of life rather than something morbid.”[1]

The first ‘Kaleidoscope’ painting, ‘It’s a Wonderful World’, was created in 2001. Originally inspired by a Victorian tea tray found by Hirst, the works are made by placing thousands of different coloured butterfly wings in intricate geometric patterns into household paint.

Works from the ‘Kaleidoscope’ series were first exhibited as part of ‘Romance in the Age of Uncertainty’ at White Cube, London, in 2003. In 2007, Hirst presented a major series of the paintings in the solo show, ‘Superstition’, at Gagosian Gallery, London Davies Street and Beverley Hills.

The ‘Kaleidoscope’ paintings reference the spiritual symbolism of the butterfly, used by the Greeks to depict Psyche, the soul, and in Christian imagery to signify the resurrection. The works are reminiscent of, and even sometimes directly copy stained glass windows (‘South Rose Window, Lincoln Cathedral’ (2007)). Their titles similarly often reference Christian iconography, and Hirst chose to name a collection of paintings in 2008 after entries in The Book of Psalms.

Whilst the butterfly is one of Hirst’s most enduring “universal triggers”, in the ‘Kaleidoscope’ paintings he differs from his use of it in earlier works. Previously, the inclusion of live butterflies, as in the installation ‘In and Out of Love’ (1991), or whole dead ones in the butterfly monochrome paintings, was partially an exploration of “the way the real butterfly can destroy the ideal (birthday-card) kind of love; the symbol exists apart from the real thing.”[2] Recalling someone once saying to him: “Butterflies are beautiful, but it’s a shame they have disgusting hairy bodies in the middle,” Hirst chose to use only the iridescent wings in the ‘Kaleidoscope’ paintings, divorcing the butterflies from “the real thing”.[3] Titles such as ‘The Most Beautiful Thing in The World’ (2003) reflect the idealised beauty they encapsulate. 

This work is one of the largest ‘Kaleidoscope’ paintings in existence, measuring over 7 x 17 feet, it includes over 2,700 butterflies. Its title recalls the words of the American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer who, on detonating the first atomic bomb in 1945 recalled the words of the Bhagavad Gita, part of the Mahabharata, “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”



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

[2] Damien Hirst cited in Damien Hirst, ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now’ (Booth-Clibborn Editions; Reduced edition, 2005), 118

[3] ibid., 135