To Those Willing to Destroy Your Own Artwork - Clap for All Survivors!
Amy Gahyun Lee
Dec 31, 2018
Claude Monet destroyed some of his canvases of water lilies with a knife and a paintbrush in 1908, just before an exhibition at Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris, due to his dissatisfaction with the paintings. During his stay in Europe, Robert Rauschenberg threw his collages made out of Moroccan trash into the river Arno in Florence in 1953, which failed to sell during his exhibitions in Italy. Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon also each has a history of damaging their works. Richter usually burned down or ruined his paintings if they did not fully meet the planned vision, and Bacon destroyed most of his early surrealist works because they failed to deliver the desired aesthetics.
Why do you think these artists destroyed their works? Because the discarded work did not fully meet their standards in quality? Quite possibly. There however, might be other plethora of other reasons; in the case of Richter, who once confessed in an interview with Der Spiegel, that he felt a sense of liberation while ruining the works. For the rest of us, it is unfortunate that there were artworks that were never publicly introduced - except Rauschenberg’s which were buried at the river Arno - and just discarded in the studios soon after the birth of the work, or even worth, in the middle of the creation. Regardless of the reason, one thing we are certain of is that all of the paintings we are fortunate enough to see and appreciate now are survivors. God bless them!
There are other types of survivors that have gained a second chance at life. After Édouard Manet’s death, the artist Edgar Degas (an old friend of Manet) collected some of the remnants of Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (c. 1867-8) depicting the firing squad of Emperor Maximilian I of the Second Mexican Empire, which were cut into several pieces by his family and sold separately. With the exception of the left-hand section (likely cut off by Manet himself) and the pieces that could not be traced, Degas found and glued the four remaining pieces together on a large canvas. It could be interpreted that the cut off sections represent Manet's stance on not wanting to have General Mejía next to Maximilian I; by portraying Maximilian, abandoned and betrayed by Napoleon’s French emperor, to stand alone and isolated. The artwork has been on display at the National Gallery in London since 1918, and still delivers to this day the history of the painting and the destruction humiliation attached to it.
October 2017 in London, British artist Banksy partly shredded his work, Girl with Balloon, during a Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auction, rebirthing the piece to become Love is in the Bin (2018). When the hammer came down on a winning bid of £1.04m ($1.4m) for the "Girl with Ballon", the frame (with a hidden built-in shredder installed by Banksy a few years ago to destroy it in case it was ever put up for an auction) started to shred two-thirds of the work before it came to a halt. Thanks to this unexpected malfunction, the upper part of Girl with Balloon has luckily survived and the rest of hte piece is now a part of Love is in the Bin (2018), also marking the very first live performance art work created during an auction.
The artwork was not successfully destroyed exactly like the artist intended, but somewhat ironically become the artwork of the year in a body of new work and title, representing Banksy’s perception of the world. What does it mean for the artist to destroy the artwork that they have created with all their heart? If an artist truly believes that a particular piece should be destroyed, giving up the devotion and time spent on the work, there must be a valid reason and the work that should not be meddle with by others. Banksy quoted Pablo Picasso on his Instagram, uploading a video announcing the birth of Love is in the Bin (2018) by stating, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge”.
The time has now come to bring the year of 2018 to a close. Do you have anything, or any memories that you wish to shred? Surely not every moment in the year have been a brilliant work of art. There may be occasions which you wish to reset and restart. Though we may symbolically shred all of the unpleasant memories, the fragments are not fully gone, and they will revive and come back to greet us again someday as they are already a part of us. It may take time, but we will learn from this year’s shenanigans, and thoes events may become a platform for creating an enhanced and more brilliant version of ourselves - just like those surviving works of art.