8 Controversial Artworks Created by Women Artists

Many of the most iconic controversial artworks over the years have been created by women artists.

Mar 22, 2024By Elizabeth Berry, BA English, Italian, & Writing Seminars
controversial artworks created women artists


Art has long been a mirror to all aspects of the human condition including deep emotions, taboos, and expressions of gender. Considering the contentious and ever-changing role of women in many cultures throughout history, it’s no wonder that artworks created by women are some of the most controversial. Because many artists who identify as women express their lived experiences through their work, society’s response to this expression has often been mixed, ranging from delight and understanding to outrage. Here are eight of the most divisive artworks created by women. Let’s explore the link between controversy and the feminine experience.


1. Venus of Willendorf: Potentially Made by a Woman Artist

bjorn torrissen venus willendorf all sides photograph
Venus of Willendorf from all four sides, created c. 25,000 BP, photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Venus of Willendorf is by far the oldest artwork on this list, an early representation of the female form that is estimated to have been created around 25,000 years ago. This figurine was discovered in 1908 at a Paleolithic site near Willendorf in Austria. Not much is known about how or why this piece was created or about its cultural significance, though there has been speculation that it was created by a woman as a form of self-portrait.


It is unknown whether the Venus of Willendorf was controversial at the time she was created, but the figurine has been seen as a provocative piece of artwork over the years due to changing social norms over time. It sparked excitement and outrage when it was first discovered and recently, when Facebook algorithms labeled images of the statue as dangerously pornographic in 2018.


2. Yo Mama’s Last Supper (1996) by Renée Cox

women artists renee cox yo mamas last supper
Yo Mama’s Last Supper by Renée Cox, 1996. Source: Renée Cox’s website


This next controversial artwork is Yo Mama’s Last Supper (1996) by Renée Cox, which challenged traditional Christian religious iconography in a way many found to be inflammatory. Renée Cox (b. 1960) is a Jamaican-American contemporary artist known for her feminist art and political activism. In Yo Mama’s Last Supper, Cox creates her own version of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper but depicts Jesus Christ as a nude Black woman with 12 male disciples. Though many found the subtext of this piece provocative and empowering, it also offended many Christians and those with a spiritual connection to the original painting.

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3. Standing Female Nude (1913) by Dora Carrington

carrington standing female nude 1913
Standing Female Nude (recto) by Dora Carrington, 1913. Source: Art UK


Standing Female Nude (1913) by Dora Carrington is another artwork tied to controversy and the breaking of social norms. Women were not usually allowed to paint with live nude models around the time this painting was created, but a young Dora Carrington had exceptions made for her at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1913. This painting, created from a nude figure model, ended up winning first prize for figure painting at Slade due to its technical excellence. Due to its unconventional origins, the piece was controversial at the time, but the skill with which Carrington depicted the woman’s body shone through and many recognized this piece as exemplary artwork.


The artist got rid of her first name later in life, electing to be known as just Carrington. She continued to subvert convention through her friendship with the freewheeling Bloomsbury group and her open expression of bisexuality. Standing Female Nude is one of the most notable works in Carrington’s catalog, representing the scandalous nature of her life and art.


4. My Bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

women artists tracey emin my bed
My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1998. Source: Tate, London


Tracey Emin (b. 1963) is a British contemporary artist known for the personal, confessional nature of her artworks. In many instances, Emin’s artwork has provoked discomfort in viewers due to how intertwined it is with her intimate life. One of Tracey Emin’s most controversial pieces is My Bed (1998), which consisted of Emin’s unmade bed surrounded by personal items, old newspapers, water bottles, and a rug. Emin stated that she spent many weeks in this bed prior to it being exhibited, smoking, eating, drinking, and having sexual intercourse in it.


In this piece, Emin included deeply intimate items like bloodstained underwear, used condoms, and a pregnancy test. Some people did not think My Bed qualified as art because of its unconventional medium, but to others, it was a powerful representation of art as it relates to personal space, especially feminine personal space.


5. Interior Scroll (1975) by Carolee Schneeman

women artists carolee schneemann interior scroll
Print from Interior Scroll, a performance by Carolee Schneeman, 1975. Source: Tate, London


Perhaps one of the most shocking works on this list is Interior Scroll, a 1975 performance art piece by Carolee Schneeman (1939-2019). Schneeman was a feminist performance artist who created multimedia works related to gender, sexuality, and body image. Interior Scroll was a performance art piece where Schneeman stood in front of an audience and slowly drew a narrow scroll of paper from her vagina, reading aloud from it. During the performance, she acted out poses similar to those of life models, which are models who hold nude or partially nude poses in front of artists while they create their work. This piece was controversial due to the nudity involved and because Schneeman insisted on portraying the body in her artwork as explicitly sexual.


6. The Met Museum Piece by Guerilla Girls

guerilla girls women naked met museum billboard
Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum? By Guerilla Girls, 2012 (original 1989). Source: Guerilla Girls


Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum? (1989) was a billboard and poster created by Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist artist collective. Since the original version was created, Guerilla Girls have continually updated the statistics and issued new versions of the piece. This poster confronts the disparity between the number of female artists in large galleries like the Met Museum and the number of nude female subjects, with the 2012 poster stating “less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are female.”


Since its conception, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum? has remained controversial due to its challenging of social norms and gender biases. This piece combined humor with the cold, hard facts that showcased the disappointing lack of women in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since so many subjects of paintings in this gallery, especially nude paintings, are women, viewers were left wondering why the museum was not taking proper steps to support female artists.


7. The Dinner Party (1979) by Judy Chicago

judy chicago women artists dinner party
The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1979. Source: The Brooklyn Museum, New York


Judy Chicago (b. 1939) is an American feminist artist known for her work with installations and in the minimalist movement. The Dinner Party (1939) is perhaps Chicago’s best-known work and the subject of controversy in the public eye. This piece is an installation artwork consisting of a triangular table with place settings for various iconic women including Emily Dickinson and Sojourner Truth. On each plate, there was an abstract representation of a vagina. Chicago adorned each woman’s place setting with imagery she believed to be representative of her essence. The Dinner Party was controversial due to its religious symbolism and depiction of genitalia, but many celebrated the piece as a feminist commemoration of women throughout history.


8. Women Artists and Performance: Rhythm 0 (1974) by Marina Abramovic

marina abramovic rhythm 0 table photograph
Rhythm 0 by Marina Abramović, 1974. Source: Tate, London


Marina Abramović (b. 1946) is a Serbian conceptual artist well-known for her controversial artworks. Her 1974 Rhythm 0 was an intensely controversial performance art piece involving a long table with a series of seventy-two objects including a gun, bullet, lipstick, flowers, matches, a pocket knife, and a cake. The pieces on the table were selected to represent both pain and pleasure. When this performance took place, Abramović invited visitors to the Studio Morra in Naples, where visitors were invited to use any of the objects on the table on her over a period of six hours.


Considering the contents of the table, this piece was largely controversial due to the risk of bodily harm, humiliation, and even death that Abramović was subjecting herself to.


When asked about performing Rhythm 0, Abramović said: “The experience I drew from this work was that in your own performances, you can go very far, but if you leave decisions to the public, you can be killed.” Overall, this piece highlighted physicality, pain, endurance, and experimentation as themes in an iconic and provocative way.

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By Elizabeth BerryBA English, Italian, & Writing SeminarsElizabeth Berry is a writer from Los Angeles, California. She holds a BA in English, Italian, and Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University, and is working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. In her spare time, she writes articles about Italian art, culture, and literature. She loves golden retrievers, the color fuchsia, and kayaking.