Editor's Letter

To Those Willing to Destroy Your Own Artwork - Clap for All Survivors!

Amy Gahyun Lee | December 31, 2018

Banksy, Love Is in the Bin which was once Girl with Balloons before 2018. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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 have a history of damaging their works. Richter usually burned down or ruined his paintings if the paintings did not fully meet his vision, and Bacon destroyed most of his early surrealist works because they failed to deliver his aesthetics.

Why do you think these artists destroyed their works? Because the discarded work did not fully meet their standards in quality? Perhaps, but there may be a plethora of other reasons, such as in the case of Gerhard Richter, who once confessed in an interview with Der Spiegel, that he felt a sense of liberation when he ruined his works. For the art industry, 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 of artists after the birth of the piece, or even more cruelly, during the birth of the artwork itself. However, no matter what the reason may have been, 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’s) collected some of the remnants of Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian depicting the firing squad of Emperor Maximilian I of the Second Mexican Empire, 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. (The cut off section could perhaps have been a representation of Manet 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 us to this day the piece’s history of destruction and humiliation.

Édouard Manet, The Execution of Maximilian, circa 1867-8, Oil on canvas, 193 x 284 cm (displayed in room 41 of National Gallery, London). Courtesy of the National Gallery Photographic Department, London.

Last October in London, British artist Banksy partly shredded his work, Girl with Balloons, during a Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auction, rebirthing the piece to become Love is in the Bin. Simultaneously, after the hammer came down on a winning bid of £1.04m ($1.4m), the frame (with a hidden built-in shredder installed by the artist a few years ago to shred the artwork in case it was ever put up for auction) started to shred and destroyed two-thirds of the painting before it came to a halt. Thanks to this unexpected malfunction, the upper part of Girl with Balloons has luckily survived and the piece has now become a part of Love is in the Bin, the very first live performance art work created during the auction. Maybe it should not have survived as it obviously failed to meet the artist’s original intention, but it is very alive now and has ironically become the artwork of the year, representing Banksy’s perception of the world.

What does it mean for the artist to destroy the artwork that he or she has created with so much heart? If an artist truly believes that the piece should be destroyed, even if the destruction means giving up all of the devotion and time spent on the work, there must be a valid reason between the artist and the work that should not be meddle with by others. Banksy quoted Picasso on his Instagram, uploading a video announcing the birth of Love is in the Bin by stating, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” The artwork that the artists destroyed as failures have led to the magnificent birth of remarkable pieces that do survive, of which we encounter in museums today. Destruction can inspire artists and can be the driving force that leads to the creation of another new, brilliant work of art.

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 may have been a brilliant work of art. There may be those that wish to press reset on the year and restart. Though we may symbolically shred all of the unpleasant memories, the shredded fragments have not fully gone, and they will revive to come greet us again someday as they are already a part of us. It may take time, but we will learn from this year’s silliness, and perhaps this can serve to be a platform for us to create an enhanced and more brilliant version of ourselves, just as that of the surviving works of art.

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