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The Top 10 Most Controversial Artworks of All Time
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The Top 10 Most Controversial Artworks of All Time

Picture of Bethany Stuart
Updated: 11 January 2017
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.

The Enigma of William Tell (1933) | Salvador Dali

This painting by Salvador Dali is the last in a series of canvases based on the Swiss folklore of William Tell, a legendary figure known for his skills with a cross-bow who – in order to rescue himself and his son – is set the challenge of shooting an apple of his son’s head. Dali reinterprets this paternal sentiment as cannibalism by, allegedly, placing himself as the infant in Tell’s arms and using the lamb cutlet to suggest a juxtaposition between father and destroyer. The most explicitly shocking component of the image is clearly the enlarged and phallic buttock that, in being propped up, suggests impotence. Dali received wide criticism for depicting the face of Tell in this image as Russian despot Vladimir Lenin and was eventually rejected from the surrealist school. The painting itself was nearly destroyed by founder Andre Breton.

This painting can be seen at Moderna Museet, Exercisplan 4, 111 49 Stockholm, Sweden, +46 8 520 235 00.

Guernica by Picasso | © Citizen 59/Flickr

Guernica by Picasso © Citizen 59/Flickr


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.


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

 

Fountain (1917) | Marcel Duchamp

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