In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays)

In 1991, Damien Hirst presented In and Out of Love, his first solo exhibition in London. Taking up two floors of the Woodstock Street Gallery between June 21 and July 26, 1991, the exhibition comprised a room of live butterflies and an installation titled Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays.

This installation was subsequently acquired by the Yale Center for British Art. To mark its thirtieth anniversary, In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays) is presented here alongside works of historic, modern, and contemporary art that address the core themes of Hirst’s work: love and death; beauty, desire, and suffering; permanence and fragility; the symbolic and the real; the relationships between people, places, and things; and the boundary between art and life.


The exhibition space for In and Out of Love was provided by Tamara Chodzko (now Dial), an American gallerist, who had recently taken on vacant premises on Woodstock Street. The nascent Woodstock Street Gallery, previously a travel agency, was located in the heart of Mayfair, an area known for its exclusive luxury boutiques. The gallery was short-lived—In and Out of Love was the only show mounted there before it closed down. For Hirst, however, the exhibition was a critical and commercial success. Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays sold immediately to a private dealer and quickly passed through further hands before it was acquired by the Center in 1997 and displayed later that same year.

Hirst’s original installation was composed of two parts: on the ground floor of the gallery and the basement. The ground floor installation, which visitors entered from the street, In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), consisted of an artificial humid environment designed for breeding butterflies. The butterflies were hatched and flew free until they died. A white Formica table held four bowls of sugar water to feed the butterflies. The walls were lined with five monochrome primed canvases on which were attached pupae. Plants were placed below them to attract the butterflies to settle back on each canvas after hatching. In the basement, In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays) featured eight paintings in bright pastel colors, each with dead butterflies pressed into their surfaces of high gloss paint. The paintings were originally unframed before being acquired by the Center. Nearby, four ashtrays loaded with cigarette butts were placed on a table, redolent of the aftermath of a crowded private view. Around the room were arranged four large cubes, each with a hole on every side. These cubes had appeared singly in earlier work by Hirst from which flies were hatched, but in In and Out of Love nothing hatched from them, and they multiplied.


Hirst described In and Out of Love as his most conceptual work at the time, creating the entire life cycle of butterflies in the upstairs space and then turning those butterflies into art downstairs, thus posing a fundamental question about the line between art and life. The work caused critical excitement. A detail of one of his new butterfly paintings had already been reproduced on the cover of the pilot issue of Frieze magazine in May that year. “Both spaces are called In and Out of Love,” Hirst explained in an interview with the magazine about his installation. “One's the romantic view of it, the other is the harsh reality. I'm not sure which is which.” [1]

Which is which? The live butterfly room (re-created for Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern in 2012) was physically warm with the delicate beauty of butterflies flitting around the room. But it was also a place of fetid confinement, the monochrome canvases and the pupae upon them suggesting shroud, tomb, and monument with a nod to the epic late The Stations of the Cross paintings of Barnett Newman about human suffering. The sugar water fed the insects but also connoted the saccharine idea of love. Hirst’s room played with the beauty of the butterfly as symbol of freedom and delicacy but also, given its short lifespan, as an image of transience or fickleness—fleeting love.


Downstairs, the eight paintings with their glossy surfaces and bright colors trod the fine line between short-term pleasure and long-term soullessness. The butterflies remain beautiful in death but are doomed to decay with time. The life-giving sugar water has been replaced by cigarette butts and ash. Sociable life has been here, but it comes with addiction, disease, and mortality. There are no simple answers. Hirst asks us to question whether an easy line between art and life can ever be drawn at all.

As Hirst explained in 1991: “It’s about love and realism, dreams, ideals, symbols, life and death. I worked out many possible trajectories for these things, like the way the real butterfly can destroy the ideal (birthday-card) kind of love; the symbol exists apart from the real thing. Or the butterflies still being beautiful even when dead. All these things are completely thrown off balance by a comparison I tried to make between art and life, in the upstairs and downstairs installations, a crazy thing to do when in the end it’s all art.” [2]


Ars longa, vita brevis. But “in the end it’s all art.” The biological term for a butterfly in its final mature phase is imago. Translated from the Latin it is simply “image.”


[1] Damien Hirst interviewed by Stuart Morgan, Frieze (Issue 0, May 1991).

[2] Damien Hirst interviewed by Sophie Calle, Internal Affairs (Jay Jopling/ICA, 1991), unpaginated.


Damien Hirst’s In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays) installation, Yale Center for British Art, photo by Richard Caspole, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020