These European Artworks Were So Controversial They Shocked the World

Maurizio Cattelan, La Nona Ora, 1999 | View of the exhibition 'Libre !', 2014 at Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France. Courtesy Perrotin
Maurizio Cattelan, La Nona Ora, 1999 | View of the exhibition 'Libre !', 2014 at Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France. Courtesy Perrotin
Photo of Freire Barnes
Art & Design Editor26 September 2017

From politically probing to provocatively explicit, these 11 European works of art have caused their fair share of controversy – some to the point of even being banned from public view.

David, Michelangelo (1501–1504)

One of the most famous male figures in art, Michelangelo’s David was a bit too much of an eyeful for the ladies of Victorian London. When the Grand Duke of Tuscany gave this cast of the famous Florentine statue to Queen Victoria in 1857, she promptly bequeathed it to the V&A museum where a giant fig leaf was fitted to cover David’s privates due to the colossal nature of the sculpture.

On view in The Weston Cast Court at the V&A, London.

Plaster cast of  'David', by Michelangelo, 1501-4 | Museum no. REPRO.1857-161, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle, Johannes Torrentius (1614)

Back in 1627, Torrentius’ paintings were considered immoral and blasphemous, and even though the work was never banned, the artist was sentenced to 20 years in prison before he was released by royal decree. Although both the artist and his art abound in mystery, there are clues in the allegorical painting above, such as the crossed pipes and the sheet of music, that supposedly allude to a secret cult religion.

On view at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Johannes Torrentius, Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle, 1614 | Courtesy Rijksmuseum

Olympia, Edouard Manet (1863)

‘What are you looking at?’ the reclining naked lady seems to imply in her knowing stare in Manet’s ‘shocking’ painting. But Paris society weren’t shocked at Olympia’s nudity, as this was a recurrent theme in art, but more at the open representation of prostitution – note the black cat in the corner, causing the Salon in 1865 to hire policemen to protect the work.

On view in Room 14 at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1865

The Origin of the World, Gustave Courbet (1866)

You don’t get more ballsy than Courbet’s exceptional frank painting, which leaves little to the imagination. As you might expect it has caused a fair bit of controversy over the years. Commissioned by Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil-Bey, it didn’t actually go on public view until 1995 after years of moving between private collectors, including psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. In recent years it’s been banned on Facebook when it was posted to a French user’s profile and then in 2014, artist Deborah de Robertis performed in front of the painting, revealing herself, like the painting, to unsuspecting gallery goers.

On view in Room 20 at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

Gustave Courbet, L’Origine du Monde, 1866 | Collection of Musée d’Orsay. Photo: © Rodney/Flickr

Acrobate et Jeune Arlequin, Pablo Picasso (1905)

Picasso’s fairly subdued portrait of two figures painted during his Rose period was confiscated by the Nazis because it was deemed ‘degenerate’. Included in the 1938 Degenerate Art auction, Joseph Goebbels reportedly wrote in his diary about the works included in the sale, ‘Paintings from the degenerate art auction will now be offered on the international art market. In so doing we hope at least to make some money from this garbage.’ The work was to have the last laugh though when it set a world record in 1988, being bought by the Mitsukoshi department store for £20.9/$38.5 million.

Not on public view, part of a Private Collection.

Pablo Picasso, Acrobate et Jeune Arlequin, 1905

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp (1917)

It might now be considered a pivotal creation in the canon of art but initially people had a hard time understanding how something that you would pee in could be considered art. When Duchamp first submitted Fountain (1917) as an exhibit for the Society of Independent Artists’ first exhibition in New York, it was rejected and the directors attempted to return the work to the signatory of the work, R Mutt – a fictional artist Duchamp created.

Location unknown, presumed lost.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917 | Photo: Alfred Stieglitz, courtesy of Creative Commons

Old Lecher with Rifle Protects the Museum’s Spring Apparel from Dadaist Interventions, Max Ernst (1920)

In 1920, the German artist, Max Ernst organised a show in a pub after he and fellow Dadaist Johannes Baargeld were excluded from an open, jury-free exhibition in Cologne. The Dada-Early Spring show (poster below) invited people to experience a lewd poetry recital near the urinals and encouraged the destruction of an Ernst sculpture. Because another piece, an figurative sculpture titled Old Lecher with Rifle, had an engraving of Adam and Eve over the crotch area, the police closed the exhibition on grounds of obscenity.

Max Ernst, Dada siegt! (Dada Triumphs!), poster for the exhibition Dada-Vorfrühling (Dada Early Spring), Brauhaus Winter (Winter Brewery), 1920 | © National Gallery of Art Washington

Günter Brus actions (1964–1966)

One of the founding members of Wiener Aktionismus (Viennese Actionism), Günter Brus liked to screw with conventions. His provocatively violent ‘actions’ in the 60s, in which he often self-mutilated and used his own urine, excrement and vomit, would eventually land him in jail for six months, and led to him fleeing Austria for nearly 10 years. During the height of his controversial period, he teamed up with filmmaker Kurt Kren who captured these intense happenings in filmic montages.

Piggyback, Jake and Dinos Chapman (1997)

In 2014, the brothers ‘enfants terribles’ upset a children’s rights group when their sculpture of two naked girls was on display at Rome’s contemporary art museum, MAXXI, as part of the permanent collection. Many patrons called for the work to be removed from public view, concerned by the “paedo-pornographic” nature of the sexually explicit work, which of course the museum obliging did.

Not currently on view.

Jake & Dinos Chapman, Piggyback, 1997 | Courtesy of the artists

La Nona Ora, Maurizio Cattelan (1999)

Always one to have a laugh, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan had a pop at the Roman Catholic church with his satirical, La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), which depicts a floored life-size sculpture of Pope John Paul II having been hit by a meteorite. The blasphemous connotations of the work has sparked some ungodly reactions, such as vandalism of the work by a religious group when it was shown in Poland.

Not currently on view.

Maurizio Cattelan, La Nona Ora, 1999 | View of the exhibition 'Libre !', 2014 at Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France. Courtesy Perrotin

Banner Suspended in Front of a Cove, Santiago Sierra (2001)

In 2010 the Spanish artist was voted the most controversial artist via a public poll on CNN and no wonder for many of his art projects have been banned before they’ve been made. He’s created monolithic sculptures out of human excrement collected and dried by the ‘untouchables’ in India, turned a synagogue in Cologne into a gas chamber and employed asylum seekers to sit encased in boxes. So it’s no surprise that when he erected a banner in Mallorca that proclaimed “Inländer Raus”, which translates as “Natives Out” – due to the high volume of Germans – is wasn’t too long before the town council removed it, for it to be reinstated and then subsequently removed again.

Not currently on view.

Santiago Sierra, Banner, 2001 | Courtesy the artist

Want to see more shocking artwork? 17 Horrifying Works of Art to Scare you S**tless

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