These Are The Most Controversial Artworks Ever In Modern Historical past

Some of the world’s most significant artworks have been highly controversial. From paintings to installations, these specimens of refined imagination have often been at the heart of serious debates, pitting freedom of expression and rigid societal conventions on opposing sides.

For instance, the recent Royal Academy exhibition on Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. To enter the exhibition, visitors have to squeeze between two nude models. However, those who want to avoid taking on the daring act can enter from a separate gate.

Inside is a career retrospective of Abramović, showcasing nude models resting with skeletons among the other performance art she created between the 1970s and 1980s mostly with her then-partner German artist Ulay.

Art has had a long history of creating a stir in society. Michelangelo, perhaps the greatest artist of all time, faced the ire of the Catholic church when he painted The Last Judgement on the wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City in the 16th century. The fresco was deemed offensive because of the depiction of mostly nude figures. The exposed parts were painted over with flowers and fabric designs. It was only in the 20th century that part of the coverings were removed during restoration.

In modern times, Abramović, too, has been making headlines with her works. In 1974, she asked the audience at her exhibit to use anything — from lipstick to chains and knives kept on a table — on her own body as part of the performance art. The predominantly male audience used dangerous objects to hurt her. A paper was attached to her body that read “VILE.” Abramović endured the pain but was seen in tears. Photographs of the exhibit and Abramović’s vivid description of what she went through continue to horrify to date.

Controversies have, therefore, been a part of especially those artworks that have an important message, hitting hard at the established traditions of society and mocking conservativeness. Sometimes, the objection is simply in the form of a refusal to exhibit an artwork that may be perceived to offend a few. For others, it takes an extreme turn, with vandalism of the works and threats to the artists.

It is important to note that while most of the controversial artworks have continued to exist, some do not. An example is Andy Warhol‘s 30-metre mural Thirteen Most Wanted Men, depicting 22 mug shots of the 13 wanted men taken from a 1962 booklet of the New York Police Department. It was created for display on the façade of the New York State pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

A political controversy ensued as the mural showed mainly Italian-American gangsters and hinted at police brutality. The mural was completely obliterated by officials who painted it over silver paint days before the fair’s opening.

Compared to Warhol’s mural, many of the other controversial artworks have been more fortunate despite even stronger criticism. Each of these has managed to trigger a new discourse in humanity’s unending quest for absolute liberalism. Some of them even fetched millions of dollars at auctions and a rare few have gone on to redefine the world of art itself, introducing and establishing new techniques that were once frowned upon.

Controversial artworks that shocked the world

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso (1907)

Controversial Artwork
Image credit: Pablo Picasso/PD-US/Wikimedia Commons

Spanish master Pablo Picasso’s oil painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Women of Avignon) is seen by many as the first masterpiece of the 20th century. It is also among the most controversial in the sense that it created a stir in the society of its time and continues to have a bearing on viewers through its stark boldness.

The painting depicts five nude women, two of whom appear to be staring directly at the onlooker. Two women on the right of the large canvas are seen with African-style masks on their faces. According to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City (NYC), where the art is permanently housed, Picasso gave the mask impression after he visited the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, where he saw African and Oceanic art.

It was first displayed by Picasso in his Paris studio and was seen by his friends, some of whom were celebrated artists. However, they didn’t like it. The painting was first publicly exhibited in 1916 when it was deemed immoral.

One of the reasons Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was controversial was because it hinted at prostitutes of Avignon, Barcelona’s red-light district. The other major reason was the style of the painting. It gave birth to Cubism but went against the artistic tradition of the time. The society of the time was more into Impressionist art, such as vivid landscapes, and was unprepared for a painting with geometric, angular lines forming the distorted figurines of humans.

“It created an uproar and changed forever the course of painting in particular and art in general. One can easily speak of art before and after this work,” underlined American philosopher Jorge J. E. Gracia in a discussion on desecration of art for Michigan Quarterly Review.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp (1917)

Image credit: Alfred Stieglitz – NPR Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Marcel Duchamp is hailed as one of the pioneers of Dada (or Dadaism), the early 20th-century avant-garde European art movement.

On 9 August 1917, Duchamp attempted to submit a porcelain urinal placed upside down to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in New York. He named the urinal Fountain and signed it under the pseudonym “R.Mutt, 1917,” since he was a member of the Society.

The exhibition was open to all who could pay a fee. But the Society’s board decided not to display Duchamp’s submission, citing reasons such as vulgarity, immorality and even plagiarism. In protest, Duchamp resigned from the board.

He then got his artwork photographed by the renowned American photographer Alfred Stieglitz and had an anonymous editorial published about the controversy in his avant-garde magazine, The Blind Man.

“Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object,” noted the editorial, which some believe was written by avant-garde icon and the magazine’s co-founder Beatrice Wood.

The argument defined and laid the foundation of a revolutionary stage of modern art. As such, the Fountain is today seen as the object that started Conceptual Art. A controversial piece of its time, it serves as a radical inspiration for young artists.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)

Guernica by Pablo Picasso
Image credit: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Though it is one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century, the large oil black-and-white painting titled Guernica remained controversial for a long time. The main reason was political — it showed the bombing of civilians of the city of Guernica in Spain’s Basque region by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the behest of Francisco Franco (later Spanish dictator) during the Spanish Civil War.

The artwork was commissioned by the Second Spanish Republic, the government against whom Franco was leading the Nationalists. It was displayed the same year at the Spanish Republic Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Paris.

The painting, which measures 3.49 × 7.77 metres, depicts a dismembered soldier, a dead baby, a gored horse, a bull and screaming women. All of them are surrounded by flames, underlining the carnage the Nazis and Italian Fascists inflicted on the city on 26 April 1937. Owing to its mismatched subjects, the painting didn’t receive the attention it should have at the fair. The Second Spanish Republic toured the mural in parts of Europe, which led to an initial wave of popularity as a message against Fascism.

But when the Republic lost the Civil War and World War II began, Picasso loaned the painting to MoMA and refused to give it to the Spanish government under Franco, saying that he would do so only if the Spanish Republic came back to power. The painting was able to return to Spain in 1981 when both Picasso and Franco were dead.

During this period, and for years thereafter, the painting, despite being anti-war, was ironically the target of anti-war protesters. In 1974, anti-war activist and artist Tony Shafrazi defaced it at MoMA. A few years before in 1970, over 250 leading American artists and writers petitioned Picasso to remove his painting from MoMA as a mark of protest against the US atrocities during the Vietnam War.

Later, the Spanish government’s decision to move the painting to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 1992 became a subject of controversy as Picasso wanted it to be displayed only at Prado Museum in Madrid.

In 2003, the United Nations covered a tapestry version of the mural at the entrance of the Security Council. It was done because the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell was to address the media from that spot and defend the unjust American invasion of Iraq. The anti-war Guernica serving as the backdrop would have made a contradictory impression when a politician was justifying war.

Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andres Serrano (1987)

To date, Immersion (Piss Christ) is considered one of the world’s most controversial artworks and is seen as one of the most significant centrepieces in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s.

It was created by American artist and photographer Andres Serrano and is part of his Immersions collection where he depicts religious iconography submerged in various natural liquids.

The photo artwork shows a small plastic crucified Jesus Christ submerged in a jar containing urine.

Interestingly, it was favourably received at the time of its debut at Stux Gallery in NYC. Over the next couple of years, it was exhibited at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Serrano won an award sponsored by the taxpayer-funded government body National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

But trouble began in April 1989 when the American Family Association (AFA) found it blasphemous. Two US Senators, Al D’Amato and Jesse Helm, objected to the NEA awarding Serrano for the artwork. They passed a law that required the NEA to take into account “general standards of decency” before issuing grants.

The wide-ranging debate brought the artwork to international attention. Serrano received hate mails and death threats. He also lost the grants he had received for the work.

The artwork continued to attract controversy at several other places where it was exhibited. Attempts were made to destroy it when it was exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia in 1997. A print of the artwork was vandalised beyond recovery with hammers when it was on display at the Collection Lambert contemporary art museum in Avignon, France, in 2011. And when it went on display at the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery in NYC in 2012, Conservatives urged US President Barack Obama to denounce the artwork.

In June 2023, Serrano was among the 200 people invited by Pope Francis to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Vatican’s contemporary art collection.

“I was surprised to be invited and even more surprised that he gave me a thumbs up,” Serrano told The New York Times (NYT). “And I was very happy that the church understands that I am a Christian artist and I am not a blasphemous artist. I’m just an artist.”

Tilted Arc by Richard Serra (1981)

Tilted Arc
Image credit: Tate via Richard Serra

Commissioned by the US government’s General Services Administration (GAS) in 1979, Tilted Arc was a 3.6-metre-tall and 36-metre-long curved slab of rust-covered Cor-Ten steel plate.

It was installed at Manhattan’s Federal Plaza two years later, firmly placed on the circular grid pattern of the pavement bisecting the building. It was meant to enhance the aesthetic of the place and be a permanent installation. Instead, Tilted Arc has gone down in history as one of the most bitterly contested sculptural installations in 20th-century America.

Soon after its installation, Tilted Arc became the centre of a heated debate, pitting mostly artists against office-goers and residents, as it forced them to take a longer route around it. Some art critics even saw it as a failure, but the public outrage was particularly intense.

Covering the discord extensively in the early 1980s, NYT noted in May 1985 that “no work of art has been the source of as much controversy” as Tilted Arc. It also called the public opinion against the installation “stubbornly uninformed.”

As the matter intensified, the GAS decided in June of the same year that the sculpture should be removed. The decision was criticised by the artist community.

“Aesthetic decisions are not best arrived at by counting noses,” Thomas Messer, the then director of the Guggenheim Museum, told NYT in June 1985 following the decision.

“If every esthetic issue were resolved that way, it would threaten the texture of the cultural life in this country,” he added.

William S. Lieberman, at the time chairman of 20th-century art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, said. “I think one should be concerned, but not treat it with hysteria,” he said. ”Think how often things were moved around in Florence.”

However, the United States Court of Appeals ruled in 1988 that Serra was not “constitutionally entitled to a hearing before the sculpture could be removed” because it belonged to the Government, and the Government had the right to do what it wanted with it.

Eventually, in 1989, after a long eight years of dispute, Tilted Arc was disassembled into three parts and deposited in a yard in Brooklyn.

So relieved were people and many others at the time that The Wall Street Journal reportedly ran an editorial headlined “Good Riddance.”

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn by Ai Weiwei (1995)

Ai Weiwei
Image credit: Sotheby’s

Ai Weiwei is counted among the greatest Asian contemporary artists of all time. Besides his unique art installations, Ai is also known for his open criticism of the Chinese government and has, therefore, been forced to live in exile away from his country since 2015.

Ai’s installations are often inspired by Chinese imagery and history. For instance, his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is a series of sculptures representing the 12 Chinese zodiac signs inspired by an 18th-century fountain clock.

But what he did in 1995, two years after returning to China from the US, raised eyebrows in art circles. He picked up a Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) ceremonial urn dating back some 2,000 years and dropped it. The urn splintered into multiple pieces as it hit the floor.

The Han dynasty urn that Ai dropped had immense monetary and cultural value. When enraged critics called it an act of desecration, Ai reportedly countered with the words: “Chairman Mao [Zedong] used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.”

Although the message Ai wanted to send remains unclear, some suggest he was questioning the cultural value, heritage and their place in society. Others say it was his way of reminding the world of the Communist excesses of the Cultural Revolution under Mao.

As for the ‘art,’ it was not just the dropping-and-smashing; it was Ai being photographed doing it. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is a triptych — a series of three black-and-white photographs. The first shows Ai holding the urn, the second shows the urn in mid-air and the third shows it shattered to pieces after it hit the ground. Ai later said that he, in fact, broke two urns because the photographer could not capture the act properly in the first instance.

The triptych was first published in 1995 in The White Book, a book that Ai Weiwei co-edited. It was later enlarged to 148x121cm for exhibit. Twenty years after first publishing it, Ai recreated a much larger version of the controversial piece using LEGO bricks.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is of immense value as an artwork. Its copies have gone under the hammer at Sotheby’s and Christie’s for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Myra by Marcus Harvey (1995)

How can one make an artwork of a notoriously famous serial killer of children? But this is exactly what Marcus Harvey did when he depicted Myra Hindley on a large canvas.

Myra Hindley was dubbed the most hated woman in Britain for her participation in the gruesome murders of five children aged between 10 and 17. She joined her partner, Ian Brady, in the killings between 1963 and 1965 in the Manchester area. Four of the children were sexually assaulted. All five were buried on the moors, leading the media to dub the killings Moors murders.

The two were caught, tried and sentenced for life in 1966. Myra Hindley died from bronchial pneumonia caused by heart disease in custody at West Sussex Hospital in November 2002, aged 60. Following her death, over a dozen undertakers refused to cremate her because of the horrific nature of her crimes.

After obtaining the police mugshot of Myra Hindley, artist Marcus Harvey created a 2.7-metre-by-3.4-metre-large black-and-white artwork, depicting the serial killer using a cast of the handprints of a child. The handprints that formed the mosaic were meant to evoke the innocence of her victims.

No one bothered to take note of the artwork when it was made in 1995 because Harvey wasn’t known at the time. Two years later, the artwork was exhibited as part of the Sensation Exhibition of Young British Artists (YBA) at the Royal Academy of Art. It was here that it caused more than just sensation.

The artwork was targeted by some other artists on the opening day. Canisters of ink were thrown at the painting and so were eggs. Some vandals were apprehended by security personnel. Stones were pelted at Burlington House, the Academy’s office, damaging windows. A pressure group named Mothers Against Murder and Aggression picketed at Burlington House along with the mother of one of the victims demanding that the painting be removed.

Despite the intense opposition, the artwork was again displayed two weeks after the vandalism incident behind a perspex screen and with increased security. It went on exhibit at other places before settling at the Saatchi Gallery for a while before a collector named Frank Gallipoli reportedly bought it.

Explaining the significance of the work, art critic Richard Cork wrote in The Times newspaper, “Far from cynically exploiting her notoriety, Harvey’s grave and monumental canvas succeeds in conveying the enormity of the crime she committed.”

In 2008, the artwork appeared fleetingly in a video shown in Beijing for the promotion of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. An organisation not associated with the official organisers was the creator of the video. But it caused enough embarrassment for officials in London, with both Downing Street — the office of the Prime Minister of the UK — and the then mayor of London Boris Johnson condemning its use.

The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (1996)

Controversial Artwork
Image credit: Brooklyn Museum/No Restrictions/Wikimedia Commons

After the storm it created in the UK, Myra was also displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in NYC in 1999. But it did not create a flutter in the Big Apple. However, another painting, which too was part of the same Sensation collection and displayed along with Myra, came at the centre of a fresh controversy in NYC.

This was The Holy Virgin Mary, an artwork that had earned its creator, Chris Ofili, the Turner Prize — the most important art award in Britain — a year before the NYC exhibit.

Ofili is a British of Nigerian descent. His works are inspired by the rich African culture, symbolism and heritage. Likewise, The Holy Virgin Mary, which measures 2.4 metres x 1.8 metres, was made using oil paint, resin, glitter and elephant dung.

The painting depicts the Virgin Mary as an African woman in a traditional blue robe with a yellow background similar to the gold leaf pattern of religious icons.

The controversy wasn’t over the African imagery but because Ofili used elephant dung to depict a bare breast and introduced eroticism to the sacred religious figurine by adding around 100 magazine cut-outs of intimate parts of a woman’s body resembling butterflies. Elephant dung was also used as two large balls, one decorated with the word “Virgin” and the other with the word “Mary,” supporting the painting at the base.

Opposition to the painting was severe. Rudolph Giuliani, the then Mayor of NYC, took particular offence.

“You [the museum] don’t have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else’s religion,” BBC quoted him as saying. “The idea of having so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick.”

Giuliani threatened to cut off a grant of USD 7 million and evict the museum from its building, which was owned by City Hall if the Sensation exhibition wasn’t cancelled.

Religious groups also protested. William A. Donohue, the then President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said, “I think the whole city should picket the show…[it] is designed to shock, but instead it induces revulsion.”

Reacting to the outrage, Ofili said, “As an altar boy, I was confused by the idea of a holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy. Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a hip-hop version.”

His spokesperson equated Giuliani’s threats as “totalitarian and fascistic.”

The museum sued the City of New York for violating its First Amendment rights and won. The painting remained on display but was placed behind a plexiglass shield. However, in December 1999, a man went past the shield to spray white paint across the artwork. When asked why he defaced the painting, he said, “It’s blasphemous.”

Despite all the controversies and the vandalism incident, the Sensation exhibition as a whole was a major success both in the UK and New York. Christie’s sold The Holy Virgin Mary for USD 4.6 million in London in 2015. The amount was almost twice the maximum estimate and record for Ofili. It was later gifted to MoMA, where it is now stored.

(Hero and Featured images: Michelangelo/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

– What is the most misunderstood art?

It is difficult to pick one work of art as the ‘most misunderstood’ because there are several spanning centuries that have been interpreted wrongly by society. Among the recent examples could be Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andres Serrano and Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn by Ai Weiwei. Works of artists, such as Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol, have also been misunderstood.

– What is controversial in art?

Anything can be interpreted as controversial when it comes to art if what the artist depicts goes against the established norms of society and leaves the people shocked.

– What was Picasso’s most controversial painting?

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is widely known as Pablo Picasso’s most controversial painting.

– Which is one of the most controversial artworks of the Classical period?

Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement is considered one of the most controversial artworks of the Classical period. The massive fresco covers the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City and took four years to complete, from 1536 to 1541. The Catholic church found the fresco offensive because of the depiction of 300 mostly nude figures. A fig-leaf campaign led to the covering of the exposed parts with flora and fabric. A restoration work in the 20th century led to the removal of some of those fig coverings.

Source: Prestige Online

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