For centuries, artists have been at the forefront of major cultural shifts. They have challenged authority. Forced us to re-think our social conventions. And even taunted traditional methods and ideas of what art is.
As it happens, though, most works of art considered shocking in the beginning come be revered. They’re eventually recognized as important for their social and artistic value. Many of the creators of controversial artwork wanted exactly that. To push people to conceive of their world in a new way.
Ironically, scandalous artwork succeeds and fails at the same time. When society adopts a new way of experiencing the world as a result of the art, then it succeeded. However, its popular acceptance means it no longer challenges society, and so it fails.
It’s a paradox that all great controversial artwork embraces. The paintings on this list were controversial for various reasons. Ranging from political. Religious. Artistic. And sexual controversies. Some were controversial only to a specific group of people. And others were controversial on a broader scale. There are many more paintings that could have been listed. But these are five of the most controversial.
5. One Nation Under Socialism by Jon McNaughton
The most recent painting on this list is Jon McNaughton’s One Nation under Socialism. McNaughton has been the subject of controversy for his paintings that depicts President Barack Obama in a very negative light. In this painting, McNaughton paints Obama holding the U.S. Constitution while it burns and pointing to the flame. The incendiary image quickly went viral and stirred outrage on the Internet.
Critics have questioned the merits of the painting, stating that it doesn’t really appear to be about the socialism mentioned in the title. Some feel that, rather than challenging accepted mores or artistic conventions, McNaughton’s piece is merely a partisan political attack that is intended for shock value, rather than prompting discussion or a change in how society thinks. Either way, it earned enough of a reputation that the artist was offered $300,000 for the painting.
4. Olympia by Édouard Manet
Édouard Manet is widely known as one of the key artists to usher in the Impressionist movement, in which short, choppy strokes are blended to create beautiful images from afar, but lose all definition up close. In Olympia, Monet turned to the female nude, as so many painters had done before. Manet’s painting, which was completed in 1863 and accepted by the Paris Salon in 1865, immediately caused a scandal.
The woman, a self-assured lady of the evening, looks out at observers in a confrontational manner, while her servant offers her flowers from a suitor. The public was appalled by the vulgarity of the painting, the abundance of sexual innuendo – such as an orchid and up-swept hair – and the sexual rebellion symbolized by the black cat at the foot of the bed. The woman’s left hand, too, which mimicked Titian’s Venus of Urbino, was seen as a mockery. While the left hand of Titian’s Venus casually covers her genitals, the hand of Manet’s nude seems tense, almost forcefully blocking her genitalia from the viewer’s gaze in a willfull manner.
Manet’s style raised some hackles by deviating from accepted standards of painting. The models nudity is brightly emphasized by the light colors. The short brushstrokes – the hallmark of Impressionism – also gave the woman a harder look, as opposed to the soft, dull appearance of earlier nudes.
3. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s unnerving 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon shows five nude prostitutes with startling appearances. Far from the classical female nudes, the five prostitutes all demonstrated the hard-angled and semi-abstract style that made Picasso so famous. Scholars consider the painting a seminal work in developing both modern art and cubism.
Similar to Manet’s Olympia, the women in Picasso’s painting look at the viewer in a confrontational manner. The distortion of their faces and the sharpness of their bodies appear aggressive, a far cry from the soft, ultra feminine nude of earlier centuries. In addition, two of the nudes have faces that resemble African tribal masks. The painting’s blending of styles and its revolutionary appearance caused controversy among the public and the art community itself. It was deemed “immoral” in large part because of the “savage” appearance of the women.
2. The Guitar Lesson by Balthasar Klossowski de Rola
Better known as Balthus, de Rola was a Polish-French artist who first came to prominence in the 1930s. He vigorously resisted efforts by others to create a biographical or bibliographic record of his life or his work. He wanted all focus to be on viewing the artwork itself, not reading about it. Picasso was an early admirer of Balthus’s work, though Balthus rejected the artistic movement of Cubism, which became the hallmark of Picasso’s artistic career.
Many of Balthus’s paintings involve erotic positions or themes involving young girls. His painting The Guitar Lesson caused a stir for its eroticism between an older woman and a young girl. The painting was part of Balthus’s first exhibition at Paris when he was just 26 years old and set a tone for his later work. The Guitar Lesson’s depiction of an older woman positioning a young girl like a guitar on her lap, with one hand pulling the girl’s hair, and the other hand located at the girl’s exposed genitals, shocked those who viewed it.
1. Goddess Lakshmi Naked on Shri Ganesh’s Head by MF Hussain
Maqbool Fida Hussain, better known as MF, has been called the “Picasso of India” and was one of the more controversial painters to come from the country. Raised a Muslim but indifferent to religion, Hussain adopted Hindu deities for visual effect and frequently depicted them nude or in compromising positions, such as Goddess Lakshmi Naked on Shri Ganesh’s Head. His artwork angered Hindu nationalist groups to the point that from the 1990s until his death in 2011 they actively engaged in efforts to intimidate him and encouraged violence against him.
After his artwork was printed in a Hindu magazine in 1996, as many as eight criminal complaints were filed against him, which were ultimately dismissed by courts in 2004. In 2006, though, he was again charged for depicting Hindu deities in the nude, which was considered “hurting sentiments of people.” Despite the outrage and legal efforts of his critics, Hussain is widely credited with influencing an entire generation of Indian artists.