Appetite for Destruction

The Embarkation for Cythera
The Embarkation for Cythera, 1717, Louvre. Many commentators note that it depicts a departure from the island of Cythera, the birthplace of Venus, thus symbolizing the brevity of love. Wikimedia Commons

A couple of weeks ago I wrote on historical and contemporary instances of art vandalism. Since then I haven’t been able to get the topic out of my head, but I’ve been thinking about these acts coming from another source entirely—the artists themselves.

Many artists pragmatically own up to the fact that destruction is an integral part of the creative process. Usually it is a matter of dissatisfaction with a project or concept or execution.

As a young artist, Georgia O’Keefe destroyed painting after painting because the end results featured another artist’s style foremost, and her own input was merely derivative. You have to wonder if O’Keefe would have been able to develop into the iconic and original artist we know her as today without the brusque treatment of her early work. She was searching to find herself as an artist and that can’t always be done while wearing kid gloves.

Destroying paintings and sculptures is also sometimes a damn-the-torpedoes response. Claude Monet went through several bouts of financial depression during his lifetime, but would often destroy his paintings rather than allow them to be seized by his creditors. Marsden Hartley worked during the heights of the Great Depression and during those rough years he was forced to destroy at least a hundred paintings because he could not pay the price to have them stored.

For Jean-Antoine Watteau, it was a sign of atonement. On his deathbed, he ordered many of his more salacious paintings to be destroyed as a way to clear his conscience. During the conflagrations that marked the reign of Girolamo Savonarola’s in 15th-century Florence, artist Fra Bartolommeo likewise destroyed many of his works, but then took his penance one step further by renouncing his art for six years.

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