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Investigation of Animal Art in The Damien Hirst' 'Kaleidoscope'

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Throughout this project called Kaleidoscope – an animal art analysis I would like to discover and study the detailed anatomy of different animals, and how animals are portrayed and represented in this artwork. I am researching this topic in order to have a better understanding of how animal physiology is represented. I have chosen this theme because I am aiming to become a vet and I believe that this project will help me develop a better understanding of art history and animal physiology, and also drive me to have a deeper passion for my future career in veterinary science.

Since artists have traditionally used animals to portray religious rituals, mythical creatures, incarnations of gods and goddesses, symbolically in Christian art or simply as beloved pets. The human mind having an intense fascination for them since the first known cave paintings 40,000 years ago. Yet now with the growing acceptance of self expression and testing of social boundaries, the luxury of freedom that comes with contemporary art has reduced animals to a material- as inanimate as paint or clay. While some see the exploitation of animals in art as ‘unethical’ and ‘offensive’ through its barbarity, others look past the physical presence of animals and contemplate the symbolic meaning behind the work. Artists who use animals for their own personal expression seek to address a perspective that confronts the viewer and ignites discussion that would not be achieved without a shocking use of medium. Yet how does one define the line between freedom of expression, and the needless killing of innocent animals for the shock value and publicity? The works of Damien Hirst support this discussion – his works interpreted as either contentiously pushing the boundaries or brilliantly addressing prevalent issues and ideas in the world he and the audience share.

British contemporary artist Damien Hirst’s works are essentially built upon the essential dilemmas that surround human existence. The use of dead animals is a frequent theme in Hirst’s installations, confronting viewers to consider their own and society’s attitudes to death. His recurring themes have included the fragility of life, society’s reluctance to confront death, and the nature of love and desire, often dressed in titles which exist somewhere between the naive and hypocritical.The artist explores death in a way that either shocks his audience in it’s barbaric gore or makes the viewer question their morals as they admire luxurious and evocative truth that his works provide.

Hirst’s first Kaleidoscope painting was created in 2001. It was inspired by a Victorian tea tray that he found on one of his research outings. They are made by arranging thousands of different coloured butterfly wings in an intricate geometric pattern on top of oil paint. Works from the Kaleidoscope series were first exhibited as part of ‘Romance in the Age of Uncertainty’, at White Cube in 2003.

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. Their titles often reference to Christian iconography. His series of Kaleidoscopes wasn’t the first to include butterflies; he has previously created other installation paintings.

Damien Hirst’s Kaleidoscope series is a modern retropective of the spiritual cycle of life while providing a masked reality of animal cruelty through a visually alluring display of colour contrasts and detailed patterns. Hirst began using butterflies as a medium in the early part of his career, describing the insect as ‘universal triggers’ in a sense that ‘everyone is frightened of glass, everyone’s frightened of sharks, everyone loves butterflies’. Hirst joined a long line of artists from Egyptians to Renaissance painters in depicting these insects. Reminiscent of the religious iconography of stained glass, some of his pieces reference already existing windows in churches throughout London. This religious sentiment is conveyed within the title of his work “The Crown of Life”- referring directly to a line in the Bible which states that those who remain steadfast and love God will be blessed to receive the crown of life. This promise of life and resurrection is illustrated in the physical life of a butterfly- laid out for the viewer to admire the permanence or hopeful ephemeral aspect of death.

Hirst chose to use only the iridescent butterfly wings in his work – stripping the butterflies from their thorax and abdomen. His decision to only work with the deemed admirable reflects the idealised beauty they encapsulate while divorcing them from the “real thing”. The detail in colour contrasts between aqua, dandelion a crimson create a scene constructed from mainly primary colours. The repetition with the pattern of colour is used to elude the display of light, depth and beauty – presented as gothic stained glass windows of circular patterns of Buddhist mandalas and references to nature. The perfect symmetry within the diamond shaped form creates a satisfying balance and sense of audience control as they find similarities within the elaborate detail of the work. The family of broad winged, striking butterflies unite as one as the unique colour of their wings determined where they are placed in the scenes- the more transparent allowing light to illuminate the work while the more opaque wings surround to provide contrast and depth in distinguishing shapes.

Overall this idea of a cycle of life being installed and frozen creates a reflective poignancy of childhood wonder – vulnerable and delicate. Yet as they are suffocated and frozen within a luxurious display of Hirst’s works, the audience are invited to feel a sense of ironic guilt as they can only appreciate nature’s wonders when it is put directly in front of them in overwhelming accumulation. Apart from their rich association with childhood, butterflies are symbols of freedom, the embodiment of living life to the full, In many cultures they represent human souls. Butterflies also represent escape – and death is the ultimate release. 

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Investigation of Animal Art in the Damien Hirst’ ‘Kaleidoscope’. (2023, February 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from
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