Damien Hirst (b.1965) is not only fascinated by death, but likes to draw on traditional art historical themes and examples to inspire his work. There was an opportunity to see this last year in the Gemeentemuseum’s exhibition The Anatomy Lesson. The warm relationship between the artist and the museum is confirmed this summer by a new exhibition, entitled Memento mori, in the museum’s Vincent Award Room. The somber theme of the show – the Latin phrase in the title means ‘remember that you will die’ – is illustrated by a series of Hirst’s 2008 Memento etchings (from the Monique Zajfen Collection), displayed in dialogue with the works of Rodolphe Bresdin (1822-1885) and his student Odilon Redon (1840-1916) (from the collection of the Gemeentemuseum). Bresdin and Redon saw death as a mystery passing human understanding, whereas Hirst takes a contemporary view of death as an event that can increasingly be fended off by medical interventions. The memento mori theme in his work is therefore far less menacing and admonitory.
A warning of the constant threat of death and the precariousness of life on earth, thememento mori theme appears regularly in works of art down the centuries. It was particularly popular in the seventeenth century, when innumerable paintings pointed to the vanity of earthly existence, symbolised not just by skulls, but by a host of other objects, such as wilting flowers, clocks and snuffed candles. But the theme continued to be a major source of inspiration in succeeding centuries.
Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull entitled For the Love of God (2007), exhibited in the Rijksmuseum in 2008, is an iconic part of his oeuvre. Before he produced it, he made a series of sketches, one of them inscribed with the title Death Explained. In these sketches, Hirst represents human mortality in a more clinical way, in which decay does not inspire either fear or resignation in the face of death. The skulls depicted in Hirst’s Memento etchings are a reminder of death; they give a final image of a face. Because of their short lifecycle, the butterflies that also feature in the series stand for the transitory nature of life. Hirst chooses butterflies because they also symbolize metamorphosis and resurrection. Their colourful spread wings accompany the skulls in a regular pattern that suggests infinity.
Bresdin was a French artist well-known for his drawings, lithographs and engravings. His etchings and drawings are remarkable for their detail and technical precision. As a Symbolist artist, his student Redon expressed his inner feelings in visionary, dreamlike images and depictions of imaginary beings. This exhibition includes a selection of Bresdin and Redon prints in which death is a key preoccupation. Their macabre, morbid atmosphere evokes nightmarish images. Hanging these works in the same space as Damien Hirst’s etchings creates a surprising confrontation and an interesting tension between the two.
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