Damien Hirst's 2008 Memento series contains 13 etchings, each depicting one of his most crucial motifs: skulls, diamonds, and butterflies. Hirst’s simple composition – with the subject set centrally against a dark backdrop – and hyperreal rendering creates a visceral confrontation with themes of mortality, fragility, and beauty.

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Meaning & Analysis

Created in 2008, Memento is a series of 13 etchings by Hirst, depicting the most infamous of his iconography: the skull. The subject matter of the Memento series is representative of Hirst’s most celebrated iconography: the skull, the diamond and the butterfly. The series comprises six prints of butterflies, six of skulls and one of a diamond skull, each image sharing the same composition and set against a dark backdrop.

Hirst’s Memento series shores up the duality that structures the core of human experience, depicting objects that represent the constant psychic tussle between life and death, beauty and decay, desire and fear, love and loss. Each print in the series shows a physical manifestation of this set of beliefs and ideas, depicted in meticulous detail so as to emphasise a visceral confrontation with the viewer.

Depicted in beautifully rich detail, the butterflies in the centre of the first four compositions are striking in their colouring and its mimetic quality. Hirst’s concern with depicting his chosen subject matter in photographic detail stems from his work on ‘fact’ painting beginning in 2000. The artist’s aim with such works was to attempt to reproduce photographs in the traditional medium of oil on canvas. The realistic image of the butterfly plays with Hirst’s concern around facts and truth that photographs are assumed to depict.

Much like the butterflies in this series, the skulls that Hirst depicts are each unique and represent human mortality in a clinical way, providing the viewer with a final image of death, the remains of a human face. Fascinated by death as a subject for artistic investigation, Hirst does not represent decay or fear of death, but instead transforms this image of mortality into an aestheticised symbol. Set in dialogue with the butterflies in the first half of the Memento series, the skulls in the second half of the series stand in for the transitory nature of life and resurrection.