Countless butterfly wings spin around Damien Hirst new paintings, in expanding circles of iridescence. These wheels of brightness seem to have a light inside them, a neon heart, but it’s just how the light in the gallery reflects off the wings. Ultramarine blue, fire orange, ebony black – the fabulous paint chest of nature is raided to hypnotic and alluring effect.
Is this extravagant use of bits of animals unethical? If so, the Natural History Museum is a far worse sinner, with its millions of animal specimens. Ever since he started making art in the late 1980s, Hirst has claimed the same privilege for art that science has taken for granted since the 17th century – to pin the natural world to a table, to dissect and examine it. Except that his specimens are not explained or analysed. At his most imaginative, as he is in this show, Hirst metamorphoses science into sheer wonder. He wants you to feel the awe-inspiring miracles of life. What if you were in the sea with a shark swimming towards you, mouth open? Or a forest full of multicoloured butterflies?
This exhibition reminds you what makes Hirst such a special artist: that manic impulse to celebrate, to praise, that in these mystical, ecstatic paintings soars to strange religious heights. What does he believe in? Can he say? But he has to worship.
Hirst comes on like a 21st-century Turner. He also resembles Matisse in the Vence Chapel the painter designed on the French Riviera. For this is an exhibition that worships light as reverently as those two prophets of colour. Yet Hirst unleashes hues neither of them ever managed. He can do that because his colours are not mixed on a palette but are a collage of the wondrous wings of insects. Appropriation becomes ecstasy.
The wheels inside wheels of precisely placed biological remains that create these hypnotic shifts of shade and colour are inspired by the mandalas or cosmic maps that feature in several Asian religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. He gives each of his Mandalas a title that fits its woozy psychedelia: Deity, Transfiguration, Radiance. He’s not leaving any doubt about the religious theme.
Yet there are Christian as well as Buddhist implications. A wheeling pattern of blues and yellows is called Martyr and looks to me like a rose window in a gothic cathedral. The biggest and most stupefying work is called The Creator. Nocturnal butterfly colours arranged on a colossal scale create orbits that spill beyond the six-metre wide array of panels that hold them. Mandalas and rose windows were invented long before Edwin Hubble proved there are galaxies beyond our own: they seem to anticipate the discovery that space is full of giant wheeling discs of light.
So the geometric splendour of Hirst’s curious and obsessive creations is an image of the universe and our place in it. Galaxies whirl while planets and asteroids follow their orbits through the solar system. All these orbits within orbits are suggested by Hirst’s epic aids to meditation, but at the centre of each is one complete butterfly. All the radiating intricacies of the universe are concentrated in a single delicate creature.
The butterfly is an impossible thing, a staggering expression of life that flutters through a cosmos full of light and energy. It is one of art’s most worthwhile tasks to make us look at the beauty of our world – and if you open your mind to what’s on these walls, setting aside any prejudices about Hirst and his wealth, you’ll find an artist in awe of life. Exploiting nature? He worships it.