Serving as a mirror held up to the face of the world, one of the primary functions of art is to take a closer look at nature and ourselves, reflecting a hard kernel of truth that “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”, as Picasso said. Whether it’s been the haunting smile of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, which ushered in fifteen minutes of fame for everything, art has managed to shock the public on many occasions, either from a work that has been particularly revelatory and thought provoking or one that seemed to exist for the mere sake of pomp and indulgence.
A more antiquated work of art, like Manet’s Olympia, might not seem so controversial now, but at the time it was subject to jarring criticism due to the societal mores it wilfully disregarded. Likewise, the creation of Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is a more recent example of a piece of art that has been highly controversial, if only for its high price tag and the gimmick that many art critics and citizens alike believe it to be.
While the influence of some of the following pieces has not managed to go far beyond the whispers between gallery walls, others have made a distinctive impact on art and even demanded an answer from the world about its place and function.
10 Erased de Kooning – Robert Rauschenberg
Much like many of the controversial art objects created by the Dada movement, Erased de Kooning was not actually a drawing by Rauschenberg. Instead, the drawing and its name came to be when Rauschenberg obtained a sketch from American artist Willem de Kooning, erased part of it and had fellow artist Jasper Johns attest to its creation by naming and dating it. Though the drawing had been much talked about before its exhibition in 1963, Rauschenberg had been experimenting with erasing his work for a long time before he happed on the idea of erasing someone else’s, conveying a question about whose art it really was and why.
9 Flag - Jasper Johns
Inspired by a dream he had of the American flag, Jasper Johns gave tangibility to his vision in Flag (1954) when he was just 24 years old. Considered a neo-Dadaist work for its re-creation of a familiar object, the piece was made using oil, paint and newsprint. Many critics wondered if it was just a painting or if it was actually a flag, but despite the confusion the replication of the most familiar symbol of cultural pride in the United States created significant controversy. While Johns continued his exploration of flags and painted more than 40 before the 1970’s, none of them achieved the prominence of his first effort.
8 The Rape - René Magritte
Painted by the famed Belgian artist in 1935, The Rape both looks and sounds like a violation, however political the painting might be. Appearing like a portrait, the painting shows the face of a woman but instead of the familiar features, her eyes have been replaced by breasts, her nose by a belly button and her mouth by her pubis. Utilizing the ideas of Surrealism and a sense of metaphor in tandem, the painting seems to offer up a harsh opinion of how men might see women, particularly destined, as they were at that time, by their anatomy.
7 Dr Paul Gachet – Van Gogh
Painted in 1890 by Vincent Van Gogh, Dr Paul Gachet is not only a telling portrait of the painter himself but a potentially more powerful indictment of his therapist. A painting that depicted Dr Gachet, who treated Van Gogh following his stay at the St. Paul psychiatric hospital, the painting made the mental state of Gachet something of a question with his lethargic demeanour, head leaning into hands and drawn face. While the image seems straightforward enough, it was controversial for its rather honest look into the mental illness that could be afflicting both painter and subject.
6 The Nude Maja – Francisco Goya
A nude, even a bold nude, might not seem like such a controversial thing now but back in 1803, this piece by Spanish painter Francisco Goya was thoroughly shocking. Portraying the reclining figure of a nude woman on a pillowed green sofa, The Nude Maja incensed the public due to the rather unapologetic gaze of the woman who stared unabashedly at the viewer, not averting her eyes as was common at the time. Though Goya was questioned about the inflammatory nature of the painting during the Spanish inquisition, he managed to escape unpunished, possibly because the work had been inspired by artists Vazquez and Titian.
5 Guernica – Pablo Picasso
Created for the World Fair in 1937 and one of Picasso’s most politically charged and extravagant works, Guernica was inspired by (and named after) the bombing of the small Spanish town by the Nazi’s on April 26, 1937. Due to the monstrous nature of the attack, which was perpetrated on unarmed civilians, Picasso created a 3.8 x 7.5 meter painting as an artistic document of the tragedy, stipulating that it could only return to Spain when democracy reigned. While the painting exists as one of the most moving artistic responses to war, it rightfully returned to Spain in 1981 after Juan Carlos became Spain’s democratic leader.
4 The Enigma of William Tell – Salvador Dali
Completed in 1933 as another expression of Surrealist artist Dali’s unique and somewhat inscrutable aesthetic, The Enigma of William Tell is among the most provocative of pieces by an already controversial artist. Depicting folk hero William Tell with the face of Russian political leader Vladimir Lenin, the painting features a kneeling, pantsless Tell whose one buttock extends halfway through the painting, appearing phallic and supported by a crutch. While Dali’s meanings are often hard to assess, his fellow Surrealists found it offensive enough that they attempted to destroy it when it was shown at the Grand Palais in Paris, but all that was broken was Dali’s relationship with the Surrealists.
3 The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - Damien Hirst
Created in 1991, and among the more controversial art pieces of recent years, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was conceived by English artist Damien Hirst, who was part of the Young British Artist (YBA) scene of the early 90’s. Commissioned by Charles Saatchi, the piece consisted of a 4.3-meter tiger shark that was captured along Queensland, Australia, preserved and kept in a glass case. While the piece was certainly divisive for drawing a line between art and stunt, the tiger shark of Damien Hirst has become a defining piece in British art and one of the most controversial works in recent memory.
2 Olympia – Eduard Manet
Initially displayed at the French Salon in 1865 and hung high on the wall to avoid the onslaught of physical attacks, Olympia incited a similar outrage to the one Goya had received 60 years earlier. While the boldness and nudity of the image was one thing, it was Manet’s depiction of a prostitute that shocked, which could be discerned by the orchid in Olympia’s hair and the pearl earrings she wore. The outrage surrounding the painting may not have been a surprise given the nature of some of Manet’s earlier work, but it did go a long way in truthfully depicting Parisian life.
1 Fountain – Marcel Duchamp
Among the most cleverly appropriated objects in the catalogue of the Dada movement, Duchamp’s Fountain created quite a stir when it appeared in 1917 at an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. Starting out as a urinal that was produced by J.L. Mott Iron Works, Duchamp laid the object on its back, signed it “R. Mutt” and referred to it simply as Fountain. While the original was lost soon after the exhibition, the object was a perfect example of the anti-art ethos of Dada and remains among the most famous, and strange, of art objects.