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. These artists and writers who have attempted to destroy their own work, with varying success.
1. Franz Kafka
During his lifetime Kafka only published a handful of shorter works, which gained modest critical attention. Plagued by self-doubt, Kafka burned a large amount of his own writing and—aware that his fragile health was failing—he asked his good friend and literary executor Max Brod to destroy any unfinished manuscripts on his death, unread.
Kafka died from tuberculosis at the age of 40 in 1924, and Brod, who felt that Kafka’s writings deserved to be shared, went against his wishes. He published Kafka’s most important works, 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
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 created from 1953 to 1966. Baldessari called this act The Cremation Project, and he enlisted some students from the University of California to assist him in cutting up his canvases and loading them 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
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, but 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 revealed that she thought the story was “a quire full of utter nonsense” and said she was going to burn it herself. 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
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, though, 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, and pieced together the novel from the many index cards Nabokov had sketched the story on. 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 Nikolai 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 at age 42.
6. Dante Gabriel Rossetti
When poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s beloved wife Lizzie Siddal died from a drug overdose, he 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. So 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
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. As death approached, Monet—a perfectionist by nature—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
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 when he became a Jesuit; he wished 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
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 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 when he was just 25. Before he died, Beardsley wrote to his publisher Leonard Smithers begging him to destroy his erotic drawings upon his death. Fortunately, Smithers ignored the request, and Beardsley’s wonderful art survived.
10. Francis Bacon
One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Francis Bacon’s 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 in which Bacon was unafraid of destroying any work he felt didn’t match 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’s said that over 100 ruined works of art were found in his studio.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.