In every century, country, and culture, there have been instances of writers and artists who wanted their work destroyed.
Artists acquire ownership over their work when they create and destroy it, regardless of whether the impulse to destroy stems from the desire to express their creative side, the need to clear their minds of previous works, mental agony, or all of the above.
Learn more about the artists who destroyed their works, from Franz Kafka to Francis Bacon, and understand why the notorious street and political artist Banksy once remarked that “the need to destroy is equally a creative urge.”
Kafka is one of the writers and artists who wanted their work destroyed.
He only released a limited few shorter pieces during his lifetime, each of which received a moderate amount of attention from critics.
Franz Kafka was tormented by self-doubt, so he destroyed a significant portion of his writing.
He also requested that his close friend and literary executor, Max Brod, destroy any unfinished manuscripts on his deathbed without first reading them. Kafka’s fragile health was failing at the time.
In 1924, when Kafka was 40 years old, he succumbed to tuberculosis. Brod, who believed that Kafka’s writings should be published despite the author’s wishes, published them anyway.
He was responsible for the publication of several of Kafka’s most significant works, such as Amerika (1927), The Castle (1926), and The Trial (1925).
In 1939, Brod managed to flee the Nazi occupation of Prague and establish himself in Israel, where he eventually donated approximately two-thirds of Kafka’s papers to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The remaining papers were given to Kafka’s secretary Esther Hoffe, who gave them to her daughters.
However, the National Library of Israel, which desired to stake a claim to Kafka’s papers on behalf of the nation, has been engaged in a protracted legal battle over the ownership of these papers.
The National Library of Israel was ultimately awarded the right to Kafka’s remaining papers in 2015 by a Tel Aviv court, which unlocked a further treasure trove for Kafka experts.
In the 16th century, Michelangelo took a hammer to his marble Pietà, separating Christ’s left leg and arm dramatically from the rest of the sculpture and leaving the artwork shredded in fragments, possibly the earliest documented instance of an artist destroying their work. He is one of the top writers and artists who wanted their work destroyed.
Historians speculate on a number of possible motives, including a fear of being exposed as a Protestant sympathizer during the Roman Inquisition and a fit of anger over the quality of the marble, but whatever the case, the Pietà would become a lasting example of the many works artists destroyed in their name.
John Baldessari, a conceptual artist, makes a point of destroying his works. In 1970, Baldessari resolved to start a new chapter in his career as an artist by destroying all of his works from 1953 to 1966.
Baldessari referred to this action as The Cremation Project and solicited the help of several UC Berkeley students to help him disassemble his canvases and load them into the incinerator at a crematorium in California.
The act of destruction itself was captured on film and photographed to be displayed alongside the finished piece.
After the works were burned, Baldessari gathered the ashes and placed them in an urn, which he marked with a plaque with his name and the dates May 1953 through March 1966.
At the tender age of 24 in 1954, Jasper Johns decided to destroy all of his work. He reflected on this action and realized he had “to stop becoming and to be an artist” because “I had a wish to determine what I was… what I wanted to find out was what I did that other people didn’t, what I was that other people weren’t.”
Johns found a new direction and renewed inspiration once he joined the ranks of the numerous artists who had destroyed their work.
Soon after, he was inspired to paint an American flag, which he did in his most well-known work.
Vladimir Nabokov instructed his wife Vera to destroy the manuscripts of a novel he had been working on titled The Original of Laura before his death in 1977.
However, Vera was inhibited from acting on her husband’s demands out of concern that she would ruin his artwork.
After Vera passed away, her only son Dmitri inherited the writer’s manuscripts but could not bring himself to burn or publish them. So he kept the unfinished novel to himself for a long time.
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In 2008, Dmitri, by then an adult, decided it was time to publish his father’s unpublished work.
He reconstructed the novel from the many index cards on which Nabokov had sketched the story.
Critics largely agreed that possibly the work should have been destroyed as Nabokov had desired and that the extended wait for the much-anticipated work was an anti-climax.
Nikolai Gogol’s status as the founder of Russian realism was cemented by the popularity of his comedic novel Dead Souls (1842).
Gogol, a devout Christian, felt compelled to complete two additional installments of his landmark novel to spread his message of how to live a better life.
Unfortunately, his creativity began to wane at this point. He spent several years working on parts two and three before concluding that they were inadequate.
After concluding that God disapproved of his effort because of his lack of advancement, Gogol lost his motivation.
When Gogol turned to a zealous priest for advice in 1852, Father Matvey Konstantinovsky convinced him that his work was not good enough and urged him to destroy the manuscript of Dead Souls, Part 2. Gogol passed away at the age of 42, ten days later.
Agnes Martin, an abstract expressionist painter originally from Canada, is notorious for having thrown away her whole early body of work.
The early landscape paintings by Martin have all but disappeared from the art world, leaving only her meticulous minimalist masterworks.
The reasons for this destruction are unclear, but they range from the artist’s desire to control her own image as an artist to the effects of her rapidly deteriorating schizophrenia.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a pioneering Victorian poet, but he didn’t become widely known until after he had passed away. He was one of the top writers and artists who wanted their work destroyed.
Hopkins’s early writings are lost forever since the poet burnt them in 1868 when he converted to Jesuitism and decided to focus on his spiritual life rather than his writing.
Hopkins turned his back on writing for seven years before the 1875 shipwreck of the Deutschland, in which five nuns perished, spurred him to pick up the pen again.
Because of this, he returned to poetry and produced one of his most (posthumously) well-known poems, The Wreck of the Deutschland.
Most people recognize the work of Aubrey Beardsley, a gifted Art Nouveau illustrator, from his illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (1894).
Beardsley was praised for his originality in reinterpreting the aesthetic of traditional Japanese woodblock prints.
Still, he was also attacked for his use of the grotesque and his association with the Decadent art movement.
He was ill but nevertheless devoted himself entirely to his job, editing four issues of the quarterly arts publication The Yellow Book.
He was fired from The Yellow Book partly because of the stigma attached to Wilde following his indecency trial.
Beardsley went to France to improve his health, but he contracted tuberculosis and died at 25.
Beardsley requested that his obscene drawings be destroyed after his death in a letter to his publisher, Leonard Smithers. Beardsley’s beautiful artwork was saved because Smithers denied the request.
The last but not the least on our 10 Writers and Artists Who Wanted Their Work Destroyed is Francis Bacon. Francis, one of the 20th century’s most important artists, was known for producing controversial pieces that often manipulated religious symbolism and tested the limits of social tolerance. Bacon tore down several of his surrealist paintings from the 1940s because he didn’t think they accurately reflected his vision. With this, Bacon set a pattern of ruthless destruction for any creative endeavor that fell short of his standards. (During his latter years, he lamented the loss of what he now recognized as his best work.) Bacon was a prolific artist, so even though he destroyed several pieces, many more were spared. Some say that when he passed away in 1992, his studio was full of destroyed artwork totaling over a hundred pieces.