Home Magazine 16 vitalizing art pieces that shook the world

Saying that something is controversial means that it is the subject of intense public argument, or disapproval. The root of the word controversial derives from Old French controversie, "quarrel, disagreement”, or directly from Latin controversia "a turning against”. In Modern and Contemporary art, a controversy is disputed in the lands of what is legitimate or illicit, beautiful or ugly. It is an arm-wrestling match between the creator and the public or critics. It is the case of provocative art: art pieces that ultimately shake their audiences, arousing and challenging viewers feelings towards a religious, political, ethical issue. 

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A provocative artwork can be a form of art not ready to be integrated, swallowed, assimilated by society: too ahead for its time, too “ugly” or repulsive - even if "ugliness" is a value not only attributable to the taste of a given era, but also limited to the events of Western Civilization. From the perspective of a 21st Century man, the artefacts of archaic civilizations and primitive societies may appear horrifying, terrible, unpleasant and even comic (in this regard a very illuminating reading is "On Ugliness" by the Italian author Umberto Eco). Sometimes Controversial Art is revisited and esteemed over the centuries. The Triumph of Death (1562) by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel received relatively little scholarly attention for its eerie combination of eschatology within a fully earthly apocalypse. However, Bruegel's formal and iconographic choices are pioneering and a link with the inventiveness of Hieronymus Bosch. William Hogarth’s The Autopsy (1861) was described by Charles Baudelaire as "the strangest of the engravings". The stiffened corpse on the anatomical table is horrible and British doctors are monstrous in their wigs and masks. Nevertheless, the skulls that simmer in the cauldron and the anthropophagous dog make the image terrible and comical at the same time to our eyes. The triumph of the ugly and the uncanny at every grade and in different eras. 

Today, the “obscenity” of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst sells, as well as the neon work of Bruce Nauman Run From Fear / Fun From Rear, which was auctioned in 1972 despite the clear reference to an erotic act. In auctions, naked bodies sell better, the female nude wins over the male one, but also causes a lot of dismay, like the overflowing nudes of Jenny Saville (read more on Kooness). The controversial work by French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, namely Hon – en katedral (She – a Cathedral) - a gigantic pregnant woman into which the spectators could enter through a door-sized vaginal opening - has been traced back to “Camp” taste, a genre that is attracted to sexual ambiguity.

Several have been the cases of censored art in history, of altered, silenced and erased artworks, due to their unacceptable content, and despite the modern era, art and creative acts are still censored in 2020. The Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Doğan - who spent more than two years in a Turkish prison over a painting deemed “terrorist propaganda” - was released in 2019. Exhibitions or works that cause nausea, still, have a strong future. In 1997, “Sensation” was one of the first exhibitions focused on Shock Art. The 122 works by 40 Young British Artists (from the personal collection of British advertising executive and art collector Charles Saatchi), exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, had the sole purpose of causing public reaction. Its notoriety - due to the controversial works exposed - was generated by word of mouth, with an unprecedented extraordinary effect. 

Here you will find a list of 16 controversial, immoral, scandalous paintings and sculptures - from Michelangelo’s massive nudes to Bacon’s disturbing anthropomorphism - which needs careful observation free from bias. In Francis Bacon’s words: “But that is the horror in the sense that it is so vitalizing; isn't that how people came out of the great tragedies? People came out as though purged into happiness, into a fuller reality of existence”. 
Judge through your own eyes.


1 - Michelangelo’s nudes. 


Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, 1536–1541, fresco, 13.7 m × 12 m (539.3 in × 472.4 in), © Vatican Museums.


One of the greatest Renaissance treasures in the Vatican Museums in Rome, a section of the Sistine Chapel, is perhaps the most controversial art piece of Michelangelo’s work. From 1535 to 1541, at the peak of his artistic powers, Mature Michelangelo painted The Last Judgement - which had been commissioned by the Pope. All those nude figures of apostles, disciples, saints, martyrs, angels, demons surrounding Christ, which cover the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, were deemed to be inappropriate and outrageous, even homosexual. The controversy over nudity has lasted until the 1980s, when the restorers decided to keep the artist Daniele da Volterra’s fig leaves and loincloths - which had covered the exposed genitals after Michelangelo’s death - because they represent an important part of the history of The Last Judgement and have helped to preserve Michelangelo’s masterpiece from the Council of Trent’s destruction.  


2 - Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, c. 1605-06.


Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, 1604–1606, oil on canvas 369 cm × 245 cm (145 in × 96 in), © Louvre, Paris.


Between 1601 and 1606, the Baroque master Caravaggio painted the Death of the Virgin - praised by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens as one of Caravaggio's best works - for the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. This oil on canvas was considered to be a kind of an art scandal and it was rejected as unfit by the parish because the Virgin, in a simple red dress, was modelled after a prostitute, perhaps Caravaggio’s mistress. In this nearly life-sized holy figure, nothing of the devotional and respectful iconography remains. Caravaggio did not depict the assumption of Mary but her clearly death (“the swollen corpse of an ordinary dead woman”) in a frank, vigorous and realistic style. Caravaggio’s formal revolution in painting was as scandalous as his lifestyle. Read more on Kooness


3 - Manet’s shocking pale body.


Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 130,5×190 cm, © Musée d’Orsay, Paris.


Olympia - a painting by Edouard Manet, first exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon - caused shock and astonishment, because representing a well-known prostitute of the Paris circles as a mythological woman was considered immoral and vulgar. Much beyond Olympia’s nudity, what upset Manet’s contemporary audiences were her confrontational gaze, the orchid in her hair, the black ribbon around the neck and the pearl earrings, symbols of wealth and sensuality, which underlined the voluptuous atmosphere. In Olympia, everything has been associated with nocturnal promiscuity and caused the painting to gain a remarked provocative art meaning. Her left hand - modelled after Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1534) -, the black cat, the flowers that had been given to her as a gift from the black maid - another big topic of discussion. 


4 - Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World: a celebration of the female body.


Gustave Courbet, L'Origine du Monde, 1866, courtesy of Wiki Commons.


One of the most controversial and scandalous paintings in art history. Belonged to the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan until it joined the collections of the Musée d'Orsay in 1995, the famous carnal painting is a virtuous anatomical description of female genitalia by the French Realist, iconoclastic and anti-academic, painter Gustave Courbet, who, in the 1860s, was not new to erotic works. While The Origin of the World escapes pornographic status thanks to its fine color scheme which recalls the tradition of Venetian painting, it still raises the troubling question of voyeurism. The canvas was not publicly exhibited until 1988 and it continues to be affected by censorship today, with social media networks like Facebook regularly erasing the artwork. 


5 - Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: the provocative vision of Modern Picasso.


Pablo Picasso Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, June-July 1907, Oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8" (243.9 x 233.7 cm), Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (by exchange) © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Originally titled The Brothel of Avignon, the most famous painting by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, created in 1907, portrays five unconventional nude females in a Barcelona brothel. With a mix of African, Asian, native primitivist mask-like features and speaking a proto-cubist language, this two-dimensional work "liberate an utterly original artistic style of compelling, even savage force.” Les Demoiselles, at the time of its first exhibition at Salon d'Antin in July 1916, was considered as an act of immoral art, even amongst Picasso’s friends like Matisse and George Braque. Les Demoiselles’ enormous impact on Modern Art (“the most influential work of art of the last 100 years”) was not immediate and revolutionary until the French writer and poet André Breton published it in the early 1920s. Read more on Kooness


6 - Marcel Duchamp and The Fountain scandal. 


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, replica 1964, Porcelain, Unconfirmed: 360 × 480 × 610 mm, Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999 © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020.


In the Dada movement, the call to ugliness emerges decisively through the appeal to the grotesque. Marcel Duchamp provocatively puts a jolly moustache on the Mona Lisa (L.H.O.O.Q., 1930) and starts the ready-made policy by exposing a urinal as a work of art; a chosen ordinary article, something extremely inconvenient. Purchased from a store that sold plumbing fixtures, this object, which was titled Fountain and signed by “R. Mutt”, constitutes a crucial episode in the history of avant-garde art. One hundred years ago, after being rejected by The Society of Independents, Duchamp’s radical Fountain turned the art world upside down, being one of the most controversial sculptures in the art world.


7 - “Suggestive” Balthus, says the Met.


Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming 1938, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.


A 2017 petition, signed by thousands, states that the Metropolitan Museum of Art should not “proudly display” an image that “romanticizes the sexualization of a child”, demanding Thérèse Dreaming’s removal from the museum. Created in 1938, the painting by French Balthasar Klossowski de Rola or Balthus will stay. This controversial moment “is an opportunity for conversation about the continuing evolution of existing culture”. The image in question features Thérèse Blanchard, at 12 or 13 years old, with her legs bent and slightly apart, her eyes lost to fantasy, her skirt hiked up. The innocent, or languorous model is still a cause of agitation, that many are trying to censor or suppress as a document of pedophilic greed, and not as a portrait that goes beyond our expectations. 


8 - Marc Quinn’s Blood Head. 


Marc Quinn, Self, 1991, sculpture, Blood (artist's), stainless steel, Perspex and refrigeration equipment, 208h x 63w x 63d cm, Courtesy of the artist.


Young British Artist Marc Quinn (1964) creates provocative sculptural portraits composed of organic materials. Described by the artist as a “frozen moment on life-support”, Self - a silicon refrigerated mould which is cast with ten pints of Quinn’s pasteurized frozen blood - is focusing on ultra-realistic representations of the human form and bio-art. Since 1991, the artist makes a new version of Self every five years, documenting his own physical transformation and deterioration. This ongoing series is one of the most uncanny works of recent contemporary practice. For some viewers, nothing more than a gruesome Doppelgänger, frozen, but in constant change, real and simulated, alive and dead. Explore the works of Marc Quinn on Kooness


9 - The blasphemous Chris Ofili.


Chis Ofili The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, Acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on canvas, 96 × 72" (243.8 × 182.8 cm), Gift of Steven and Alexandra Cohen, © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art.


In October of 1999, The Holy Virgin Mary by British Turner Prize-winning painter Chris Ofili (1968) incited the most heated debate. Beneath its gold surface - like Medieval icons - lies a shocking, and black, matter. Considered offensive to religious viewers, The Holy Virgin Mary includes a real lacquered ball of elephant dung, where the Virgin Mary’s breast should be, and collaged images of women’s buttocks cut from pornographic magazines. Ofili’s “hip hop version” of the Holy Mary sexually charged does not oppose the sacred to the profane, but incorporates them in his own representation of the Virgin, where the folkloric meets the parody, and the whiteness of biblical figures in Western representations is overturned. 


10 - The modern Heaven of Jeff Koons and La Cicciolina.


Jeff Koons, Made in Heaven series, 1990-1991, Courtesy of the artist.


Arousing the horror of the artistic community, in 1991, the anti-modern rockstar Jeff Koons transformed, as a shock tactic, his relationship with Ilona Staller - a well-known Hungarian-born pornstar and member of the Italian Parliament - into an expensive series of erotic glass sculptures and paintings, titled Made in Heaven. Pink Panther, a porcelain sculpture of the cartoon animal in the arms of a curvy blonde, for Jeff Koons himself talks about masturbation, and for the media is pornographic and tasteless. Together with Adam and Eve, Red Butt - serigraphy that portrays the artist while having anal sex with his wife - these images remain explicit today as they were back in the 1990s. Whatever Koons does, there are always controversies of some kind regarding his shocking and provocative artistry.


11 - “For the love of god” or Damien Hirst. 


Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, 1991, Tiger shark, glass, steel and formaldehyde, 7 x 17 x 7 feet. Courtesy Damien Hirst and Hirst Holdings/Tate Modern/PA.


Is it possible to comment on the 12 $ Million shark - the highest amount ever paid for a work by a living artist -, or on The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), by English artist, entrepreneur, and art collector Damien Hirst? The sculpture, a tiger shark taxidermy, four and a half meters long, preserved in formaldehyde, was housed in a gigantic glass tank. The shark had been caught in Australia in 1991 and then worked on by Hirst team in Great Britain. Praised by the New York Times for creating a “visceral experience” of life and death, the piece was also mocked and criticized by British newspapers (you can learn more by reading The 12 $ Million Stuffed Shark by Donald Thompson). Explore more on Kooness.


12 - Maurizio Cattelan: no stranger to controversy.


Maurizio Cattelan,Untitled, 2004, mixed media, 3 mannequins, life-size, installation view, Piazza XXIV Maggio, Milan, Photo Attilio Maranzano, © Maurizio Cattelan and Fondazione Nicola Trussardi.


The three hanging kids (Untitled, 2004) is the most scandalous work by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan (1960). “Childhood, this strange place where traumas happen”, indeed. Milan artist's installation sparked outrage - and injury. Three plastic child dummies hanging from nooses in an old oak tree in Milan's busy square, Piazza 24 Maggio. Unperturbed, their faces calm and angelic, their wide eyes turned to the sky. A man returned with a ladder and a saw to cut the corpses down, but he fell, cracking his head. Thus, firemen removed the macabre installation. "It was a work meant to make people talk, designed to show the tension there is in reality”, the curator Massimiliano Gioni explained. Read more on Konness


13 - Don’t touch Tracey Emin’s bed.


Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998, mattress, linens, pillows and objects, 31 x 83 x 92 1/8in. (79 x 211 x 234cm.), Lehmann Maupin, New York, © Christie’s.


My bed (1998) - one of the shortlisted works for the 1999 Turner Prize - is the living installation by British artist Tracey Emin which generated considerable media furore. Its notoriety surpasses all understandings. It consists of a real unmade bed where Emin had remained in during a depressive phase for four days without eating nor drinking anything but alcohol. The bedsheets were stained with bodily secretions and the floor was strewn with condoms, underwear with menstrual bloodstains, and other personal items. “No one had ever done that before”, in this way the artist justifies the extremely provocative artistic meaning of her work to the press. Charles Saatchi - who bought the piece which was sold for a little over £2.5 million in 2014 - installed the bed in a dedicated room in his own home.


14 - Cathartic Art crimes.


Marcus Harvey, Myra, 1997, © Dermot Kavanag.


The most extreme example of shock art is the “Sensation” exhibition and the work Myra (1995) by the artist Marcus Harvey, which gained great media attention as it is a large portrait of Myra Hindley, a children serial killer. The subject was copied from a mug shot of the police, and the tiny fingerprints of a child, covered in black, grey and white paint, constitute a photographic mosaic. This iconic photograph is widely recognized in Britain and it provoked angry press. The relatives of the victims protested; two men threw eggs and ink on the work which was subsequently covered with a transparent film and protected by guards. Norman Rosenthal - the secretary of the Royal Academy in London - described Myra as a “very cathartic picture, incredibly serious, a sober work of art that needs to be seen".


15 - The controversial photograph which has been repeatedly destroyed.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987, signed, titled, numbered and dated 'Piss Christ 1987 5/10 Andres Serrano' (on the reverse), Cibachrome print face-mounted to Plexiglas, 40 x 27½ in. (101.6 x 69.8 cm.), Stux Gallery, New York, © Christie’s.


Defined by philosopher Julia Kristeva as an “abject artist” who produces “abject art” - a concept of proximity that produces panic, a substance that concerns the fragility of our limits, the lack of distinction between our internal and external part - American artist Andres Serrano (1950) produces works that collide with subjectivity, that transgress and break every taboo. Blood Cross (1985), a deeply saturated print with a constellation of rosy medium and ambiguous tiny bubbles, followed by the denounced and vandalized photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in artist’s own urine (Piss Christ, 1987), make up the apparent blasphemous cosmogony of Serrano’s production. For the art critic, Lucy Lippard Piss Christ is darkly beautiful and glorious. 


16 - The brutality of the real: Francis Bacon.


Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, Oil paint on 3 boards, Support, each: 940 × 737 mm frame, each: 1162 × 960 × 80 mm, Presented by Eric Hall 1953, 
© Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020 .


Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon’s first highly influential triptych Three Studies of Figures at the Foot of a Crucifixion caused a scandal at the Lefevre Gallery in Paris In 1945. The disturbing imagery - based on the Furies of Aeschylus’ tragedy Oresteia - shocked both the public and critics during the final days and subsequent end of the Second World War. Its surreal nature, with anthropomorphic physically distorted creatures and diaphanous forms, and its violent, foreboding mood inspires confusion and ambivalence: being attracted and repulsed simultaneously. Bacon offered, "I've never known why my paintings are known as horrible. I'm always labelled with horror, but I never think about horror. Pleasure is such a diverse thing. And horror is too”.

Cover image: Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 130,5×190 cm, © Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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