London is covered in dead butterflies. There is a Damien Hirst retrospective on at the Tate, and if you travel under or overground through the city you will not be able to avoid the exhibition posters. Whoever thought a cropped section of Annunciation II (comprised of hundreds of dead-on-display tropical butterflies) would work well as promotional material was probably right. This is an exhibition that seeks to desensationalise the unhelpfully - some would say undeservedly - notorious artist. Great Whites tend to make a meal of modesty.
The poster is caught in a current aesthetic tailwind, too. Butterflies can be spotted in current advertising campaigns from O2, Edun and Aubin& Wills. It feels relevant that in 2010 the BBC’s Natural World series featured a program arguing for the butterfly as a ‘very British obsession’. The claim seemed to center around the fact that large numbers of British women have tattoos featuring the creatures. This does seem a bit of a leap, but is borne out by Aubin & Wills whose current retail display features thousands of red and blue butterflies which have assembled, presumably with the jubilee in mind, to form a Union Jack.
As far as metaphors go, butterflies are typically called up in adverts and elsewhere to indicate freedom or the desire for it. The meaning behind Henri Charriere’s Papillion seems a case in point. Brands like VW and Puma have given us butterflies in the past to suggest something similarly aspirational. Perhaps this is a reflection of the creatures’ rather careless global peregrination. Monarch butterflies caught in strong winds can find themselves helplessly migrating hundreds of miles (incidentally, butterflies stripped of their antennae - which are GPS systems, and not just used for smelling - are unable to orientate themselves at all).
That said, what is perhaps more interesting is how often the imagery of the butterfly is tied to death rather than freedom, and associated not with serendipity but with grim inevitability. We are familiar with the notion of ‘the butterfly effect’, of the fallout that can result (or so it is claimed) on one side of the globe from something as insignificant as the flap of a butterfly’s wings on the other. In this case butterflies have a sort of doom-laden premonitory function. Hirst’s butterflies signify the unmistakeable curtailment of life, not its flourishing. They suggest there is beauty in death, but offer nothing to lift the spirits by way of life after it. Think about that the next time you buy a mackintosh from Aubin and Wills.