10 Most Controversial Works of Art Throughout History

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Throughout history, various artists have attempted to subvert the dominant structures in society and provoke the public to see life in a different light. Their works create new perspectives and help open dialogue on current issues. Meet some of the boldest provocateurs of the art scene from the past few centuries.

  1. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon

Pablo Picasso, the greatest painter of the 20th century, is famous for his knack for riling art critics and audiences alike. Being a key proto-cubist work, his large oil painting in 1907 named Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon represented a new form of expression for Picasso. Yet, the frank portrayal of five nude prostitutes did not sit well with many viewers upon its unveiling in 1926. A critic even went as far as to call the piece “hideous.”

  1. Édouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe

Édouard Manet’s renowned painting was exhibited at the Salon des Refusés after being rejected by the Salon in Paris. The unabashed presence of the nude woman, encircled by fully clothed men in the attire of that period, stunned the public and the art scene. Even the artist’s style is considered scandalous since he made far more brutal contrasts between dark and light than was usual in that era.

  1. Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

Activist, thinker, and artist Ai Weiwei is one of the greatest provocateurs of our time. His works fight for freedom of expression and heavily criticize the Chinese government. “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” an early work by the artist, demonstrates a powerful political statement.

Weiwei dropped and smashed a valuable 2000-year old ceremonial urn from the Han dynasty. This period is known as the defining moment of the Chinese civilization. Many antique dealers were outraged by the artwork, calling it an act of desecration, to which the artist replied: “General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.”

  1. Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic

This icon of American art was made in anticipation of the country’s centenary. Painter Thomas Eakins displayed both his talent and the scientific advances of Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College through “The Gross Clinic.” The realist painting puts the viewer in the center of a surgical amphitheater, where Dr. Samual Gross lectures students operating on a patient.

What seems to be a relatively tame piece of art today was deemed too graphic during Eakins’ day. The Philadelphia Centenary Exhibition rejected the painting for various reasons – some claim it was the woman covering her eyes or the doctor’s bloody hands that put it over the edge. Nevertheless, the artwork has been recognized a century later as one of the great masterpieces of its time on both its scientific and artistic merits.

  1. Caravaggio, St. Matthew and the Angel

The life of Baroque painter Caravaggio may be more controversial than any of his work, given that he died in exile after being accused of murder. Still, his unconventionally humanistic approach to his religious commissions never failed to raise some eyebrows.

In the now-lost painting “St. Matthew and the Angel,” Caravaggio flipped convention by using a poor peasant as a model for the saint. What dismayed critics the most were St. Matthew’s dirty feet, which looked like they were protruding from the canvas. Others were upset of the way the image implied the saint to be illiterate, as though being read to by an angel.

  1. Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans

A leading figure in the pop art movement, Andy Warhol became one of the most influential and controversial artists of his time. His style explored the line between mass media culture and artistic expression. Campbell’s Soup Cans, his world-famous 1962 silkscreen painting, caused a stir during its exhibition in Los Angeles. It sparked both inspiration and disdain among the viewers.

  1. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain

Arguably the most controversial artwork of the 20th century, Fountain is the archetypical “readymade,” an everyday object that is turned into art once the artist decides it is so. In 1917, Duchamp submitted a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists.

The institution argued that the piece could not be considered a work of art. This raised important questions in the art world, such as to what constitutes a work of art and the role of organizations in evaluating a piece.

  1. Marcus Harvey, Myra

Myra Hindley is one of the sadistic moors murderers, regarded as one of the most reviled people ever lived. When Marcus Harvey painted a police photo of Myra, fellow artists were outraged and threw ink and eggs onto his canvas. Security guards had to protect the piece from angry viewers. Nevertheless, more than 300,000 people attended the exhibition, making it a huge success.

  1. Damien Hirst, For the Love of God

In 2007, artist Damien Hirst exhibited the piece at the White Cube gallery in London. Entitled For the Love of God, the platinum cast of a human skull from the mid-1800s showed off 8,601 of the world’s finest diamonds. The expensive piece explores the fundamental themes of human existence, including immortality and art, but it was also linked to the war crimes in which diamond trafficking played a major role. Purely a coincidence, Mr. Hirst’s London gallery replied that the skull’s diamonds are all ethically sourced.

  1. Tracey Emin, My Bed

Whether you consider it a hot mess or an art, Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” was an overnight sensation. The unmade bed, empty vodka bottles, pantyhose, and soiled underwear were the subject for the installation. Once considered a farce, the artwork was later sold for around $3.77 million.

While it’s up to critics and historians to debate the technique and artistic merit of each piece, there are some works of art that shocked most people who saw them. If you are looking to add valuable pieces of history to your collection or are planning to let go of some of your treasures, Biltmore offers the ultimate outright selling or collateral lending for your art pieces. For more information, contact us at 480-991-5626 (Scottsdale) or 480-705-5626 (Chandler).