Powerful movements for change and better life require symbols as powerful as, for example, the Picasso dove, which has forever become the symbol of the World Peace Council (WPC).
Such images play a key role in bringing people of different origins and nationalities together.
And if environmentalists are looking for their symbol, then one of the options is a butterfly, an insect that is very sensitive to the ecosystem, and carries a certain meaning from the point of view of art history.
Butterflies are fragile and delicate creatures, and they are especially threatened by climate change. They are changing their migration routes, and this is one of the warning signals of the climate crisis.
Butterflies are not easy living symbols of the fragility and fragility of nature and beauty. They can also be interpreted as a symbol of hope and the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Since the 4th century BC, artists have been fascinated by these winged, sophisticated beauties that emerge from caterpillars. In the 21st century, butterflies may simply remind us that we still have a chance to change and survive.
Butterflies in art history
Butterflies were symbols of ourselves: more precisely, of our inner, spiritual “I”.
Work “Zhuang Zhou dreams of becoming a butterfly”, Written by the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu around 300 BC, it is one of the most famous stories associated with the religion and philosophy of Taoism. And she became a source of inspiration for subsequent Chinese and Japanese artists who depicted butterflies.
Chuang Tzu focused on following the “path” of nature, respecting it and adapting to it, so that life becomes harmonious. The story of the butterfly Zhuang Zhou virtually eliminates the artificial barrier between humanity and nature. After all, in nature our place is clearly not dominant.
Around the same time, a strikingly similar idea emerged in ancient Greece. Aristotle in his treatise “History of Animals” (about 350 BC) introduced the word “psyche”, which means the human soul, into everyday life, and compared it with a butterfly.
Then people believed that the cocoons of caterpillars are graves from where butterflies break out to life. In Greek mythology, Psyche, the goddess of the soul, is often depicted with a butterfly. Later in Christian art, butterflies symbolized the resurrection of Jesus.
That is why the butterfly can become a symbol of the environmental movement. She brings hope and heralds rebirth…
However, in art history, butterflies have also been warning and cautionary symbols. In European culture, they continued to personify the human soul, but their meaning and significance became deeper and more complex during the Renaissance and the Baroque era (1450-1700).
One of the greatest still life painters in the Netherlands was the painter Maria van Osterwijk, and butterflies often appeared on her canvases.
In 1668 she created a vivid still life “Vanitas” (“Vanity”).
Red Admiral (Vanessaatalanta) on the book in the center of the picture again symbolizes the human soul, and also carries a message that is relevant in our time.
Under the butterfly lies a piece of paper with a handwritten quote from the Book of Job (Old Testament):
“A man born of a woman lives only a few days and is full of calamities.”
All objects in the picture emphasize the inexorable passage of time, as well as the fact that everything worldly and material is transient. The butterfly reminds us of the transience of life and the ephemerality of luxury, which we mistakenly consider an important part of life.
The painting actually tells about the fragile beauty of the natural world, embodied in flowers and butterflies. She encourages the viewer to live in harmony with nature, show responsibility and avoid excesses.
The small white butterfly immediately attracts attention in the painting by Thomas Gainsborough “The artist’s daughters chasing a butterfly” (1756).
The butterfly seems to be about to be caught, but it sits on a thistle, which will inevitably injure the delicate child’s hand reaching for the butterfly. This winged creature still remains a symbol vanitas or the hustle and bustle of vanity.
Butterflies in contemporary art
In the XX and XXI centuries, the association of the term vanitas with butterflies was still strong, but, nevertheless, it changed under the influence of historical conditions.
In the 1950s, French artist Jean Dubuffet painted his paintings using real butterfly wings, which he glued to the surface of the canvas, creating colorful abstract patterns.
The severed wings are a link to the recently-ended World War II and are a reflection of the deaths of millions. Butterflies have become a symbol and even a harbinger of disaster.
One of the most famous modern butterfly artists is the Englishman Damien Hirst. He is aware of the traditional symbolism of butterflies and has been using them since the beginning of his career in the 90s.
His job “I will become Death, Destroyer of Worlds” (2006) is a kaleidoscopic composition in which 2,700 real butterfly wings were used on a 5 meter long canvas. Death turns into a thing of amazing and vivid beauty.
Butterflies can be a symbol of climate change for both scientific and cultural reasons. They are incredibly beautiful creatures living on our planet, and they are able to adapt to global warming.
There is also a common human cultural perception of butterflies. Common themes link Taoist writing in China during the Warring States period with still lifes in the Netherlands in the 17th century, philosophers of Ancient Greece with the YBA group of 21st century artists. And these topics touch on the process of change, resurrection, soul and death.
This trend was accurately noticed and captured by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare when he created his sculpture. “Baby butterfly” (2015), as a reflection of the problem of the climate crisis.
The child grows butterfly wings, and he is ready to fly into the sky. This is how the artist sees the escape from an imaginary future world destroyed by man.
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