Hirst introduced butterflies to his work more than 20 years ago, at his first solo show In and Out of Love in 1991. The exhibition at the Woodstock Street Gallery in London was spread over two floors; upstairs, behind shelves with pots of flowers, Hirst had installed white canvases with pupae attached to them from which, during the show, live butterflies emerged. Downstairs included a display of colourful canvases scattered randomly with butterflies. Butterflies, dead or alive, have become one of main ingredients of Hirst’s repertoire of materials. Aesthetically seductive, they epitomize the artist’s ongoing concern with key themes of human existence such as beauty and death, science and religion.
For his butterfly paintings, Hirst uses natural butterflies, generally setting them against a canvas painted in a single bright colour. They are frequently either arranged in a dense mosaic, recalling stained-glass windows, or scattered loosely across a canvas painted with household gloss. The works comprising The Souls on Jacob’s Ladder Take Their Flight are a dramatic departure from this formula. Here, Hirst confronts us with gigantic butterflies set against a stark background of sombre black. At first glance their colours seem natural but they are, in fact, entirely of the artist’s own choosing.
In order to make the plates,10 x 8in(25.4 x 20.32cm) transparencies of the six butterfly specimens that Hirst had selected were sent to Michael Taylor at Paupers Press. These were scanned, scaled up and the resulting digital files used to prepare the films for the gravure plates. After exposing gelatin-coated copper plates to the films, they were placed in a series of acid baths and the image thereby etched into the plate. This single gravure plate alone was not enough to achieve the desired depth of colour, so a second plate was used to print a flat background colour aquatint. This aquatint plate was prepared by printing the gravure plate, inked in black, onto a sheet of paper and immediately running a blank copper plate through the press, transferring a ‘ghost image’ of the butterfly onto the copper plate. Stop-out varnish is applied to all areas of the plate, except the ‘ghost image’. Following this, the plate is aquatinted and put into an acid bath and, thanks to the stop-out varnish, only the shape of the butterfly is bitten into the plate. For the black background two additional aquatint plates were made using the same method. However, instead of the surrounding areas being stopped out with varnish, for these two plates the ‘ghost image’ itself was covered to protect it from the acid bath. Printing the butterflies was a very time-consuming process. Due to the large size of the plates it takes over an hour to ink up a plate and another half-hour to print it. Generally the order of the printing was as follows: a background colour is printed first using the colour aquatint plate, inked with either a flat colour or a mixed colour depending on the butterfly. The gravure plate is overprinted next and after that the two black aquatint plates for the saturated black background. All four plates are printed in immediate succession. Given this labour-intensive process two printers can print between five to seven butterflies per day.
The title of the series stems from an episode in the life of Jacob, the biblical patriarch. The Book of Genesis relates a story where Jacob, whilst fleeing from his brother Esau, has a vision of a ladder extending from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending. One allegorical interpretation of this story sees the angels as representing souls. Despite imbuing the series with religious connotations, Hirst also establishes a sense of doubt and disbelief through the title, that has the souls escaping, taking flight.