The Top 10 Most Controversial Artworks of All Time

Photo of Bethany Stuart
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

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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.

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

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

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

Mona Lisa | © Grey World/Flickr

The Mona Lisa (1503-1517) | Leonardo Da Vinci

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Though seemingly just a simple portrait of a woman, ‘The Mona Lisa’ has been described as ‘the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world’. A portrait of the Florentine gentlewoman Lisa Gheradini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, Da Vinci plays with the idea of happiness – as suggested by the Italian meaning of ‘giocondo’ – by giving his subject an enigmatic smile that keeps 6 million visitors a year enthralled. The mystery of the woman’s true identity and the ‘sfumato’ (smokey) method Da Vinci uses to make her smile appear and then seemingly vanish has kept art lovers guessing for centuries, even driving the French artist Luc Maspero jump to his death from a fourth floor hotel room in Paris in 1852 out of wild desperation.

The Death of the Virgin (1601-1606) | Caravaggio

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Originally commissioned for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, Caravaggio’s explicitly realistic depiction of Mary’s corpse was rejected and branded unworthy of the church. Rather than representing the traditional iconography of the Virgin Mary, Caravaggio renders her almost unidentifiable as the mother of Christ, focusing on the bodily realities of her death via swollen limbs and a limp posture. This rebellious move away from a religious focus was revolutionary in the 17th century and paved the way for artists to explore forms and subjects without the suffocation of social or religious responsibility.

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.