In his 1896 essay Leo Tolstoy demanded that we cease to view ‘l’art pour l’art’ and consider art as a method of communication between humans about the conditions of life itself. By freeing art from its traditional boundaries, he sought to forge a space for the abstract and the innovative. We check out 10 of the most controversial artworks of all time that continue to shock even the most hardened of art lovers.
Guernica (1937) | Pablo Picasso
Considered Picasso’s most powerful political statement, Guernica responds directly to the events of the Spanish Civil War, in particular the bombing attacks on Guernica by the Nazis, which served only as practice but devastated the lives of innocent civilians. Represented by the contorted and unnatural shapes of the figures under the horse, the work highlights the destruction of the rampaging force of the bull – widely considered to represent the movement of Fascism. Its controversy stems from its dramatic and powerful depiction of violence which, at 11ft tall and 25.6 ft wide, is a striking symbol of the effects of war on humanity.
This painting can be seen at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía Calle de Santa Isabel, Madrid, Spain,+34 917 74 10 00
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) | Damien Hirst
Created by the contemporary British artist renowned for his controversial works, this piece contains an actual tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde and was sold by Charles Saatchi for a figure reported to be around $12 million. Originally caught in Queensland, Australia the shark itself cost Hirst £6,000 and has since been replaced due to its decomposition, which has created debate about the value and originality of Hirst’s works. Hirst claims himself that he is a conceptual artist and thus it is the initial idea or intention which is significant. Nonetheless, the work has solidified his position at the forefront of British art and has itself become an icon of British work in the 1990s.
This installation can be seen at Saatchi Gallery Duke Of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London, SW3 4RY, UK, 020 7811 3070
One of Duchamp’s most famous works, ‘Fountain’ is one of the most iconic pieces of 20th century art simply showcasing an upturned porcelain urinal. Entered into an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Fountain was initially rejected, provoking the publication of an article – thought to have been written by Duchamp himself – which stated: ‘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’. This notion of ‘ready-made’ art epitomises the changing perceptions of what art could be and particularly the conventions of the Dada movement.
The original has been lost
Trench Warfare (1932) | Otto Dix
A haunting depiction of the horrors of war, Otto Dix’s Trench Warfare depicts decaying and contorted bodies alongside skeletons and the backdrop of war’s destruction. Dix had served in the German army during the First World War and his first hand experiences clearly influenced the way in which he highlights the devastating realities of war in this work. Persecuted by the Nazi’s, Dix’s paintings were burned and he was forced to join the government’s Reich chamber of fine art. The Trench Warfare remains a nightmarish reminder of the way in which war reduces men to mere cannon fodder.
The original has been lost
Shark (2005) | David Černý
A parody of the already controversial Hirst installation The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), Černy took his creation one step further by replacing the preserved shark with the figure of Saddam Hussein and exhibiting it at the Prague Biennale in 2005 – a year before Hussein was eventually executed. Hussein is handcuffed and floating in formaldehyde whilst the container itself is signed by ‘Mohammed’. The work was banned in both Belgium and Poland in 2006 on the grounds that it was deemed too offensive for Muslims.
Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (1995) | Tracey Emin
Emin is renowned for using a variety of different artistic forms and media to create her artwork, which can be regarded as confessional, inspired by events and experiences from Emin’s life and the human condition more generally. Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 took the form of an appliqued tent which the audience would have to crawl inside in order to see the nostalgic fragments of her chaotic adolescent years which, as the name suggests, included a full list of her past lovers. After achieving iconic status in 2004 by Charles Saatchi, the work was lost in the the famous Momart fire and never replicated. However, rather than meeting sympathy Emin was met with ridicule as the likes of Godfrey Barker asked, ‘didn’t millions cheer as this ‘rubbish’ went up in flames?”‘, creating debate over the value of more abstract contemporary art pieces.
The original has been lost
Myra | Marcus Harvey
The 1997 Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy experienced a wealth of negative and even aggressive response from audiences – one person threatening: ‘unless you tell me it’s withdrawn, I’m coming round to the academy and I’m going to stab the first person I see’. Arguably the most controversial piece in this exhibition was Harvey’s portrait of the convicted serial murderer Myra Hindley who, along with Ian Brady, sexually assaulted and killed five children in the 1960s. Harvey’s portrait is made up of the handprints of children which points to the innocence of Myra’s victims and the genuine horror of her crimes. The artwork continues to outrage and has been requested for withdrawal by Downing Street.
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