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Butterflies: The ultimate icon of our fragility

Butterflies: The ultimate icon of our fragility

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the vanitas connection with butterflies was strong. Inevitably, however, the message has mutated in accordance with historical circumstances. In the 1950s, French artist Jean Dubuffet created art using real butterfly wings, which he attached to the surface of canvases to create colorful designs of abstract patterns. In stark contrast to the careful dissection and mounting of serious butterfly collectors, Dubuffet deliberately tore off his wings and scattered them asymmetrically in his compositions. They were despised by critics who described them in languages ​​reminiscent of the recently concluded Second World War. They were “massacres” that revealed the artist’s “useless” and “cruel” attitude to nature. Today, however, they are seen as a central element of the artist’s oeuvre and inspire future artists to treat butterflies symbolically as a disaster.

Perhaps the most famous contemporary practitioner who used butterflies in their art is Damien Hirst. Hirst is also aware of the traditional symbolism of butterflies, and has used them since the beginning of his career in the early 90s, but his culminating works inserted butterflies on an epic scale. I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds (2006) is a kaleidoscopic composition that used 2,700 true sets of butterfly wings. They stroked over a 5 m long canvas and created a cinematic and sublime spectacle. Death is disturbingly electrified into a thing of great beauty.

Butterflies can be an icon for climate change for both scientific and cultural reasons. They are among the planet’s most rare and ethereally beautiful creatures, and they are uniquely adapted to global warming. There is also a common human cultural understanding of butterflies: common themes connect Daoist writing in China during the Warring-States period with a still life painter in 17th-century Holland, and connect philosophers in ancient Greece with 21st-century YBA artists.

These themes — change, resurrection, soul, and death — were captured by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare in her 2015 Butterfly Kid sculptures. Shonibare’s intention was to address climate change. His figures sprout butterfly wings and are ready, as if they are about to soar into the sky. It is an amazing vision of escape from an imagined future world wiped out by man’s mismanagement of nature. In his work and others throughout history, the butterfly is a symbol of unassailable nature’s most colorful and seductive design, offering both a warning signal and a reminder of the audacity of hope.

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