Banksy and the History of the Destructive Artist
At Sotheby’s recent Contemporary Art Evening Auction, provocateur street artist, Banksy, destroyed his “Girl with Balloon” after an intense bidding battle. Shocking the art world, the canvas passed through a shredder hidden within the frame.
Despite this rebellious act, there is a long established pattern of artists destroying their own creations. Whether to make a statement of the fine line between destruction and invention, as Banksy did, or destroying artwork due to disappointment upon completion, Banksy’s act carries on a long tradition of artists destroying their artwork.
At the age of 80, Michelangelo famously damaged his sculptural work, The Deposition. After eight years of working on the sculpture, which depicts Christ’s body being removed from the cross, Michelangelo took a hammer to Christ’s leg in a fit of rage. Permanently damaging the sculpture, scholars speculate that Michelangelo decided either the composition or the material was dissatisfactory. Though the work was saved and partially restored, Christ’s missing left leg portrays Michelangelo’s violent outburst.
Michaelangelo, The Deposition, 1547-55. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
1908- Claude Monet
Arguably the best-known pioneer of the Impressionist Movement, Claude Monet habitually destroyed his artwork. Recognized for his Water Lily series created in the last three decades of his life, Monet’s works are now cherished possessions of major institutions and collectors throughout the world. In 1908, Monet ruined 15 of his Water Lilies before a show in Paris after being disappointed by their quality in comparison to his other paintings.
Towards the end of his life, despite his monumental fame and the enormous demand and value placed on his art, Monet allegedly commanded his daughter-in-law to destroy even more of his compositions, concerned over how they would be perceived by future generations.
Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1906, Photo via Wikimedia Commons
1980 Georgia O’Keeffe
Rumored to have destroyed her paintings throughout her career, Georgia O’Keeffe notably disposed of numerous artworks towards the end of her life. Purging her portfolio to maintain her strong reputation, Georgia O’Keeffe also destroyed the artwork of her husband, fellow artist Alfred Stieglitz. Per his request, O’Keeffe trashed Stieglitz’s photographic negatives. The late photographer wished the negatives destroyed so that no one could continue printing his photographs post mortem.
Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Photo via Art Gallery of Ontario
Whether linked to performance art, artistic genius, or to maintain their reputation, the destruction of art by their creator continues on as a controversial mean of self-expression. As Pablo Picasso once said, “every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”