Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

10 Writers and Artists Who Wanted Their Work Destroyed

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Whether from a lack of confidence, concerns over sensitive contents, a change of direction, or simply a fit of pique, a number of artists and writers have either destroyed their own work or asked for it to be destroyed—leaving the public wondering what treasures might have been lost. Below is a list of 10 artists and writers who have attempted to destroy their own work, with varying success:

1. FRANZ KAFKA

Max Brod. Image credit: Getty Images

During his lifetime Kafka only published a handful of shorter works, which gained modest critical attention. Plagued by self-doubt, Kafka burned a huge amount of his own writing and, aware that his fragile health was failing, he asked his good friend Max Brod, who was to be his literary executor, to destroy any unfinished manuscripts on his death, unread.

Kafka died from tuberculosis at the age of 41 in 1924, and Brod, feeling that Kafka’s writings deserved to be shared, went against his wishes. Thanks to Brod, Kafka’s most important works were published, including The Trial in 1925, The Castle in 1926, and Amerika in 1927.

Brod escaped Nazi-controlled Prague in 1939 and settled in Israel, where he later gave about two-thirds of Kafka’s papers to Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The remaining papers passed to his secretary Esther Hoffe, and then on to her daughters, and have been subject to a long-running legal challenge by the National Library of Israel, which wanted to lay claim to Kafka’s papers for the nation. In 2015 a Tel Aviv court finally granted the National Library of Israel the right to Kafka’s remaining papers, unlocking a further treasure trove for Kafka scholars.

2. JOHN BALDESSARI

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Conceptual artist John Baldessari took the destruction of his work to the extreme and made that very act art in itself. In 1970 Baldessari decided that in order to move into a new phase of his artistic life he would destroy all his early paintings from the period 1953–66. Baldessari called this act The Cremation Project, and he enlisted some students from the University of California to assist him cutting up his canvasses and loading his work into the incinerator at a California crematorium. The process of destruction was filmed and photographed to become part of the art work. Once all the work had been destroyed, Baldessari collected the ashes and put them into an urn; he also had a plaque made with his name and the dates May 1953–March 1966, much like a grave marker.

3. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

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It was long thought that when Robert Louis Stevenson showed the first draft of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to his wife Fanny, her harsh criticism of the work drove him to burn it. Stevenson had been partly inspired to write his horror story by a vivid dream he had while dosed up on medical cocaine. At this point in his life, Stevenson was wildly in debt and living as an invalid after a hemorrhage. Despite his seeming frailty, he was so inspired that he feverishly composed the first draft over the course of just three days.

In recent years, a letter has come to light in which Fanny Stevenson reveals that she thinks the story is “a quire full of utter nonsense” and says she's going to burn it herself. Robert Louis Stevenson was not be thwarted, however, and rewrote the 30,000-word story by hand. It was published to great success just a few weeks later.

4. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

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Before his death in 1977, Vladimir Nabokov left the fragments of a novel entitled The Original of Laura to his wife Vera, with instructions that it should be destroyed after he passed away. Vera felt unable to carry out her husband’s wishes, perhaps paralyzed by the fear of destroying his art. On Vera’s death, the writer’s papers were passed on to his only son, Dmitri, who again felt unable to destroy or publish, and so for many years kept the fragmentary novel to himself.

Finally, in 2008, the now-aged Dmitri decided it was time to publish his father’s unseen work. He pieced together the novel from the many index cards Nabokov had sketched the story upon. Unfortunately, the long wait for the much-anticipated work was an anti-climax according to critics, who generally argued that perhaps the work should indeed have been destroyed as Nabokov had wished.

5. NIKOLAI GOGOL

The success of his comic novel Dead Souls (1842) helped establish Gogol as the father of Russian realism. The highly religious Gogol felt it was his destiny to write two more sequels to his most celebrated work, furthering his aim to communicate how to live a more righteous life. Unfortunately, it was at this point that his creativity began to decline and he labored for many years on parts two and three, only to find his work unsatisfactory. Gogol began to think his lack of progress was a sign that God did not approve of his work and he lost his purpose. Looking for spiritual guidance, he came under the power of a fanatical priest, Father Matvey Konstantinovsky, who convinced Gogol in 1852 that his work was not good enough and encouraged him to burn the manuscript of Dead Souls, part 2. Ten days later Gogol died aged just 42.

6. DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI

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When the pre-Raphaelite poet’s beloved wife Lizzie Siddal died from a drug overdose, Rossetti was distraught. As her coffin was being sealed to be taken away and buried at London's Highgate Cemetery, he secretly placed a notebook with all his most recent poetry into her casket. Six years later, after his initial grief had passed, Rossetti tried to remember the poems he had lost but was unable to recall them in sufficient detail. Frustrated, Rossetti hired some men to steal into Highgate Cemetery and exhume his wife’s casket in order to retrieve the precious poems. The macabre scheme was a success, and despite the manuscript being badly damaged, Rossetti went on to publish the lost poems to great acclaim.

7. CLAUDE MONET

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In 1908, right before he was due to exhibit a large number of new water garden paintings in Paris, impressionist master Claude Monet destroyed them all. The paintings had taken three years to create and the exhibition had already been advertised and curated, but when Monet reviewed his handiwork he felt it was wanting. Grabbing a knife and a paint brush, he attacked the canvases, ruining at least 15 large paintings.

This was not the only time Monet took such drastic action. A perfectionist by nature, as death approached Monet enlisted the help of his step-daughter Blanche and destroyed up to 60 canvases that he had stored in his studio, and which he did not want to represent his legacy.

8. GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS

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Gerard Manley Hopkins was one of the most innovative Victorian poets, but his greatest success came after his death. Unfortunately Hopkins’s earliest works were forever lost after the poet burned them in 1868 upon becoming a Jesuit, wishing to devote his energies to religion rather than art. For seven years he turned his back on writing, until in 1875 Hopkins was inspired by the shipwreck of the Deutschland, during which five nuns were drowned. As a result he composed one of his most (posthumously) famous poems, The Wreck of the Deutschland, and returned to writing.

9. AUBREY BEARDSLEY

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Aubrey Beardsley was a talented Art Nouveau illustrator who is perhaps best known for his illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (1894). Beardsley’s innovative adaption of the style of art used in traditional Japanese woodcuts earned him many admirers, but he was equally criticized for his use of the grotesque and his links with the Decadent art movement. Plagued by tuberculosis, Beardsley was consumed by his work and went on to edit four editions of the quarterly arts journal The Yellow Book.

Unfortunately for Beardsley, after Oscar Wilde’s trial for indecency the public was gripped by a moral panic and, in part due to his association with Wilde, he was sacked from The Yellow Book. Beardsley moved to France for his health but succumbed to tuberculosis aged just 25. Before he died, Beardsley wrote to his publisher Leonard Smithers begging him to destroy his erotic drawings on his death. Fortunately Smithers ignored the request and Beardsley’s wonderful art survived.

10. FRANCIS BACON

Francis Bacon was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His work was challenging, often playing with religious imagery and pushing the boundaries of acceptability. In 1944 Bacon destroyed many of his early surrealist works, believing that they did not express his worldview. This started a theme of destruction whereby Bacon was unafraid of destroying any work he did not feel matched up to his expectations. (In his later years he did express some regret at the loss of some of his work, which in retrospect he felt did have some merit.) Fortunately Bacon was a very prolific artist and although he ruined countless works, many more survived. When he died in 1992 it is said that over 100 ruined works of art were found in his studio.

 

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Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

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John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

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