Regardless of beauty and power, art is created by humans. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that famous artists experience self-esteem issues and self-doubt like the rest of us, questioning whether or not what they’re doing is worth it. Even the most iconic creators have had days when they just thought: screw it, I’m terrible.
But there’s a big difference between thinking something you’ve created is lacklustre and actually trying to destroy it. What compels certain artists not just to discard a project, but to want to wipe it off the face of the Earth? Is it anxiety? Fear of rejection?
It’s incredible to think that some of the most famous art in the world was so close to never existing, just because the artist didn’t really like it. So next time you wonder whether something you’ve created is any good or not, just remember: even the greatest sometimes wondered what it all was for.
French-born father of Impressionism, Monet’s paintings play with light and colour to gorgeous effect, his mastery over landscape and portrait incredibly influential throughout the artistic world. How upset he must have been, then, when his vision began to fail him, rendering his ability to see what he was doing severely limited.In the year 1914 he wrote that colours no longer looked the same. “Reds had begun to look muddy,” he said. “My painting was getting more and more darkened.” As his condition got worse, he began to suffer problems differentiating between colours.
It’s impossible to comprehend what this must have been like for Monet – a man who saw and documented the world in such a unique way to gradually lose his perception of reality.
After undergoing surgery for cataracts in 1923, Monet was distraught by what he had been producing, and proceeded to destroy over thirty paintings from his famous Waterlily series.
Czech writer Franz Kafka is regarded as one of the most influential writers who ever lived. Known for his mysterious blend of existentialism and surrealism, Kafka’s most well-known works include The Trial, The Castle and The Metamorphosis.
What’s incredible is how close we were to never reading any of it. On his deathbed, Kafka instructed close friend Max Brod to destroy every single one of his remaining manuscripts – that which he had not already destroyed himself.
Thankfully Brod refused, and subsequently published Kafka’s writing posthumously, saving the work of one of the twentieth century’s most esteemed writers.
But what incredible stories might Kafka have written that he had already managed to destroy? It’s a mystery that will forever linger in the literary world…
Nikolai Gogol is best known for his haunting portrayal of Russian society in Dead Souls, but what many people don’t know is that he actually wrote a sequel, and had even planned a trilogy.
It’s believed that around 1850 Gogol read segments of the second volume of Dead Souls to his friends, who responded positively to the material and insisted that he continue. Over the next few years Gogol worked on the book, crafting and honing the story.
Sadly, it was never to be. Struck by a personality crisis (which is basically the polite way of saying he began to go absolutely insane – he stopped sleeping lying down for fear of being buried alive) Gogol sought spiritual guidance to attempt to fix his increasingly paranoid mindset.
During this time he was convinced that his previous writings were sinful, prompting him to burn the completely finished sequel.
Most famous for the controversial Lolita, Nabokov’s final, incomplete novel The Original of Laura has been the subject of extensive debate.
It was Nabokov’s wish that his son Dmitri destroy the manuscript should it not be completed, which unfortunately it wasn’t when Nabokov died in 1977.
Dmitri wrestled with this request for an astonishing thirty years, deliberating whether or not to honour his father’s wishes or contribute something to the literary world.
Eventually Dmitri reached a decision, and the novel was published in 2009 to a largely negative reception. Many criticized Dmitri for cashing in against his father’s wishes. The conundrum has since raised discussions of deathbed morality – would Dmitri have been criticized so harshly had the book been well-received?
Germany’s most sought-after contemporary artist, Gerard Richter was one of the pioneers of the new European Painting movement, and has dealt with everything from photorealism to abstract painting. Recently Richter has admitted to having destroyed much of his work over the decades, sometimes for completely inexplicable reasons.The main reason, he cites, is because of his dislike of how the public perceives him as a famous name – altering the value of the art he creates just because he’s “well-known”.
That being said, Richter has also admitted to some amount of regret regarding his bizarre urges, wondering if he has denied the artistic world something valuable. If the critical response to his previous work is anything to go by, the answer to that question is yes.
What’s undeniable is how economically valuable these destroyed works would be if they still existed. Their estimated worth is upward of one hundred million euros.
If you don’t know who Michelangelo is, you’ve at least seen his work – The Creation Of Adam (pictured above) is one of the most iconic pieces of art ever created, part of the fresco painting he did in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. And if you somehow missed that, he also produced arguably the most famous sculpture ever created, David.
Over the course of a lifetime Michelangelo produced thousands of drawings and sketches, intricately planning his paintings and sculptures before carrying them out. Many of these drawings, however, did not survive – Michelangelo tossed most of them into the fire throughout his artistic career. But why?
It’s likely that Michelangelo was self-conscious about people seeing the extensive planning that went into his work. To Michelangelo, the art that was valuable was the “finished” piece, even if this meant destroying the many incredible sketches he produced that were beautiful in and of themselves.
Brian Duffy was an English photographer responsible for taking some of pop culture’s most iconic portraits. Close your eyes and picture David Bowie’s striking Ziggy Stardust: captured by Brian Duffy. Other snaps include John Lennon, 60s beauty Twiggy and acclaimed writer William Burroughs. His photography contributed to defining the culture of the 1960s and 70s.
Disillusioned by his career’s increasing commercialisation, Duffy took to his garden and began a celluloid-fuelled bonfire, vowing to never take another photo again in his life (which he actually didn’t).
Hilariously, it’s also reported that the specific trigger for this destructive outburst was a question about toilet paper – a member of staff asked where he kept the spare loo roll. Fortunately for photography-lovers, his neighbours complained about the stench and thick smoke. The police were called and a large amount of his work was saved.
Virgil – celebrated as one of the ancient world’s most influential writers – is responsible for the epic Aeneid, a Latin poem that depicts the legendary struggles of Aeneas and a great war in Italy.
When we think of Virgil and his contemporaries – held high as the fathers of epic poetry – it’s difficult to comprehend the concept of dissatisfaction and worry. Yet that’s exactly what Virgil experienced.
So disappointed was he with the Aeneid that he requested it be destroyed, ridding the world of his writing forever. These days, it’s impossible to conceive of a literary sphere in which the Aeneid never existed, but that’s precisely what Virgil wanted.
Luckily for poetry fans (and popular culture at large) when Virgil died the executors of his estate decided not to comply with his final wishes, saving one of humanity’s literary cornerstones.