Throughout history artists have looked for ways to shake up tradition and question the role of art. Their courage has opened up exciting new pathways in art, and changed our ways of seeing the world in surprising and unexpected ways. But taking risks comes at a cost and doesn’t always pay off, at least not during the artist’s lifetime. Some of the most revolutionary artists of all time have been publicly shamed, sent to prison or nearly died in the name of great art. Let’s take a look throughout art history at some of the most shocking and controversial art ever made.
1. Michelangelo, The Last Judgement, The Sistine Chapel, 1541
From the moment of its unveiling in 1541, the wildly chaotic tangle of naked human bodies in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement amazed and horrified audiences in equal measure. Nude bodies had appeared in art before Michelangelo, but what most shocked visitors was the expansive display of nudity across the board, from ordinary people to saints and martyrs. To top it all off he even included fully exposed, graphic genitalia, prompting Cardinal Oliviero Carafa to accuse him of immoral obscenity. Fig leaves and loincloths were painted over exposed body parts, changing the nature of the original artwork. They remained on this controversial art piece until a restoration of the Sistine Chapel hundreds of years later, in the 1980s. But by then, Michelangelo’s revolutionary display of human flesh had already profoundly impacted art history, from Mannerist and Baroque decadence to the unfiltered nudity of contemporary times.
2. Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
French Realist painter Edouard Manet’s iconic Olympia, 1865 shook society to the core. First displayed at the Paris Salon in 1865, Manet’s painting depicts a nude model reclining across a sofa while a servant presents her with flowers. Manet deliberately mimicked the composition of Titian’s famous Venus of Urbino, 1534, but he gave his version a series of controversial updates. The direct, confrontational stare of his model shocked audiences who were used to seeing passive, demure women. That Manet had used a real model, Victorine Meurent, rather than a mythological muse was also shocking enough, but he made a series of suggestions that she was a prostitute – the name “Olympia” was one commonly associated with sex workers in 1860s Paris, while her surroundings echoed the style of a Parisian boudoir. The arched black cat at the base of Olympia’s bed was also a well-known symbol for sexual promiscuity. Edouard Manet was shunned by the Parisian Salon, but his breakthroughs led a generation of Impressionists and Modernists to follow.
3. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907
Picasso kept Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, hidden in his studio for a long time. Even his own friends were horrified when they finally saw it. The aggressive shards of angular, artificial colour and broken, distorted perspective was shocking enough but once the true extent of his subject matter was revealed the public were horrified. A naked group of five women are posed like classical nudes, but these are no idealised beauties. Instead he paints them with exaggerated faces inspired by the African masks he saw in Paris’ Ethnographic Museum. Reducing their bodies into a series of sharp, threatening forms lends them a menacing quality, as do their cold, unflinching stares. Avignon was a well-known street in the Parisian red-light district, leaving no question that these women were prostitutes. Clashing together angular Cubist forms and confrontational subject matter, Picasso single-handedly shattered convention and ushered in a new wave of Modern art. Art critic Jonathan Jones writes, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is the rift, the break that divides the past and future.”
4. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Dada experimentalist Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917 made history, spearheading the dawn of conceptual art. To create the work Duchamp simply bought a urinal from a factory, signed it with the pseudonym R. Mutt and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists. The society were deeply offended by the work, calling it indecent and immoral, stating, “The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not in an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art.” In defiance Duchamp had Fountain professionally photographed by renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz in a gallery setting, while an anonymous editorial most likely written by Duchamp was published in the left-wing periodical The Blind Man arguing, “Whether Mr Mutt … made the fountain has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life … and … created a new thought for that object.” This argument that any object could become a work of art revolutionised artistic practices and continues to have repercussions today.
5. Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy, 1964
American performance artist Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, 1964, challenged misogynistic stereotypes with full frontal nudity and writhing displays of erotic flesh. Combining what she called a “shopping list of ingredients,” including raw fish, chicken and sausages, along with paint, shiny plastic and rope, she brought together a group of naked women who rolled around in these substances as if lost in an orgasmic ecstasy. Reactions were extreme; one audience member was so enraged that he even tried to strangle Schneemann, while another declared, “I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t art.” But Schneemann’s sexually liberated art revealed to audiences a new kind of unconstrained womanhood, leading the way for a wave of feminist artists throughout the 1970s.
6. Stuart Brisley, And for Today … Nothing, 1972
British performance artist Stuart Brisley’s And For Today … Nothing, 1972, was staged in the depths of a run-down, shabby building in London. A dirty bath was filled to the brim with black water and rotting meat, where flies and maggots festered away. Brisley lay naked in this dirty mess every day for two weeks, with his head positioned just far enough above the water so that he could still breathe. Small groups of visitors were then invited to enter the building and observe him in this vulnerable, half-dead state. Subjecting his body to an almost intolerable situation, Stuart Brisely drew viewers’ attention to the fragile line between life and death, an attitude which would have a profound impact on the contemporary art that followed. This performance was part of a group exhibition at Gallery House, Goethe Institution, London, but the smell of cold water filled with decaying offal became so disgusting that all the other artists forced him to leave.
7. Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-9
Judy Chicago’s monumental installation The Dinner Party, 1974-9, is an iconic symbol of 1970s feminism. A huge, triangular banquet is set up with 39 place settings, each in tribute to influential women from throughout history. Envisioned as a female alternative to the last supper, it is 48 feet long on each side and took over five years to complete. By far the most shocking aspect of the work was the overt representation of female genitalia; each plate is decorated with or shaped into a variation of a vulvar form. The work was unveiled at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and drew in huge numbers, but reactions were vitriolic, labelling the work pornographic and offensive. Intended for a United States tour, other museums were quick to cancel. It took decades for the art world to warm to this work and recognise its radicality, but today it has a permanent home in the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Centre.
8. Marc Quinn, Self, 1991
British artist Marc Quinn’s Self, 1991 is an entire, life-size replica of his head in his own frozen blood. Ten pints of his blood were needed to complete the sculpture, which can only exist in a permanently frozen state. Quinn made his first version of this work at a time of personal struggle when he was suffering from alcoholism; likening his reliance on alcohol to the head’s need to be frozen, the sculpture became a powerful reflection on human dependency. He continued to make more in the series, reflecting on his changing face as the ageing process shifted both his outward appearance and internal organs. Floating in a lifeless, suspended state, congealed blood gathers at the surface of this disembodied head, making for grim viewing. Critics accused him of little more than vampiric sensationalism, while others saw the work’s place in a long tradition of self-portraiture, from Rembrandt to Cindy Sherman. Either way, the exploration of such uncomfortably intimate material has opened up a wealth of new possibilities in contemporary art.
9. Pussy Riot, Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away, 2012
Russian punk-protest group Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away, 2012 was a guerrilla performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Storming onto the church pulpit wearing bright clothes and balaclavas they jumped, danced, kneeled and crossed themselves until security guards seized and removed them from the building. Later the same day, a searing soundtrack was added to this footage, with lyrics attacking Putin’s oppressive regime and his links with the Russian orthodox church, before they called for “Mary, mother of God (to) drive Putin away!” Posted onto social media the video spread like wildfire, reaching an international audience within days. Russian officials were so enraged that they sentenced two prominent members of the group Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina to two years in prison, accusing them of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Arguments around the world ensued about Pussy Riot’s harsh punishment while famous voices unsuccessfully called for their release. Despite their horrific treatment in prison, the experience turned the pair into worldwide celebrities who continue to make successful art today.
10. Maurizio Cattelan, Comedian, 2019
Labelled as the “bad boy” of Italian art, Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian, 2019 poked fun at the pretentions surrounding today’s art world and it is now recognised as the iconic artwork of the year. At the Art Basel Miami Beach, Cattelan gaffer taped a banana to the wall, pricing it at a staggering $120,000. After it had sold, the artist David Datuna peeled back the grey tape, took out the banana and ate it, destroying the original. Easily remade, the work was later removed from the gallery to stop any more pranks from taking place. But one artist saw another opportunity, graffitiing onto the blank space where it had been the words “Epstein didn’t kill himself.” Cattelan would be the first to argue that every new twist in his tale adds value to his concept, proving that these days, almost anything can be a work of art.