3 Of The Most Controversial Paintings In Art History

“Art has to be deeply disturbing”, artist Marina Abramovic says while standing in front of Courbet’s The Origin of the World, a provocative icon of modern art. Here are 3 of art history’s most discussed paintings.

Apr 4, 2020By Marie-Joelle Eschmann, Sotheby’s Institute of Art Certificate
Art Critic by Norman Rockwell
Art Critic by Norman Rockwell

The Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet

The Origin of the World, painted in 1866 by realist artist Gustave Courbet, is a provocative icon of modern art. Never before has somebody dared to depict nudity in such a direct and naturalistic way, overthrowing all the romantic ideals that had defined the contemporary common aesthetics.

The Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet, 1866
The Origin of the World, Gustave Courbet, 1866, via Wikiart

The painting had been commissioned by Khalil Bey, a Turkish-Ottoman diplomat and ambassador living in Paris by that time. He mainly collected erotic pictures, including works by Ingres and other Courbet canvases. However, the “Turk”, famous for his lavish lifestyle, was forced to sell his collection after personal bankruptcy. After that, Courbet’s painting went underground, changing its owners until finally landing in the possession of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. But even he wouldn’t dare to show The Origin of the World to public. Instead, he hired his brother-in-law, the painter André Masson, to create a double frame behind which he could conceal it. Ironically, Masson decided to make a landscape on a wooden sliding door and titled it The Origin of the World.

Masking the Origin of the World by Courbet, commissioned from André Masson by Jacques Lacan

It would take more than 100 years for the painting to be exhibited for the first time at the Brooklyn Museum in 1988. For the first time, the public would be confronted with the extreme selectivity of Courbet’s viewpoint, the ruthless “cropping” that removes this erotic image from any context that might soften or explain it. It is an extreme work of art, painted in a way so that the viewer cannot resist from looking at it. The half-opened vulva, right in the center of the artwork, even seems to look back at the viewer, trapping him into his own voyeurism.

But What Is It Exactly That Has Made This Painting So Controversial?

Let’s take a step back. Gustave Courbet, born in 1819 in Ornans, close to Besançon, is often regarded as the 19th century’s pioneering artist who rejected academic traditionalism, challenging the established sense of beauty dictated by the “Salon de Paris” in the most extreme way. His nudes were so scandalous that they were even received with police attention. Courbet was relentlessly seeking conflict both artistically and socially with an aim to “change the public’s taste and way of seeing.” His realist works influenced younger artists such as Édouard Manet, paving the way for the upcoming impressionist movement.

The Desperate Man (Self-Portrait), Gustave Courbet, 1843 – 1845, via Wikiart

“Courbet regularly painted female nudes, sometimes in a frankly libertine vein”, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which has owned the painting since 1995, writes on its website “but in The Origin of the World he went to lengths of daring and frankness which gave his painting its peculiar fascination. The almost anatomical description of female sex organs is not attenuated by any historical or literary device …”

It’s the frankness, raw and crude, that makes this painting so provocative. It stands in direct contrast to the painting’s title, which contains a universal claim about the origin of human existence. While “the world” encompasses human-made reality and truth, “the earth”, as depicted in the painting, is comprised of the explicit and the material. The fight between these two – between the world and the earth – is what has been called as The Origin of the Work of Art by German philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1936. The idealistic title and the realistic depiction of the motif in Courbet’s painting are unmistakably in a tense relationship with each other. This effect was most probably intended by Courbet, which also discards any claim that the artwork has to be understood as pure pornography.

Marina Abramovic at the Fondation Beyeler, 2014, via Pinterest

During a visit at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel in 2014, Marina Abramovic emphasizes in a YouTube video the importance of provocation in art. “Apart from asking questions about spirituality, society and politics, art also has to be able to predict the future and therefore, it has to be deeply disturbing” she says. “Now, we are in the future, and the painting still does the same. It is still disturbing, it still asks the same questions. And it is still not accepted by many societies. That makes it such an important work and therefore still has a long life ahead.”

The painting will most probably not cease to provoke discussions among art historians, artists and the public.

Olympia by Édouard Manet

Almost at the same time as Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World, younger artist Édouard Manet exhibited his painting Olympia at the Salon de Paris in 1865, causing one of the biggest scandals in art history.

Olympia, Edouard Manet, 1863, via Wikiart

Manet’s models for his painting were Sleeping Venus by Giorgione and, even more importantly, Venus of Urbino by Titian which Manet had copied during a study trip. Both were painted during the Italian Renaissance, and both the motifs are naked women. Even if Manet’s Olympia is lying in the exact same manner as its 16th century models, this has ultimately been the main cause for the scandal.

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But first, let’s analyze the striking similarities: Both Venuses and Olympia are reclined on their right arm and resting their left hand on their lap. While Sleeping Venus is placed in front of a landscape, both Venus of Urbino and Olympia are inside of a house, lying wide awake and staring back at the viewer. The background is divided by a vertical, intentionally drawing the attention to the lap of the central figure. Also, the other people shown in the paintings are wearing clothes, emphasizing on the nudity of Venus and Olympia. Furthermore, both women are wearing a bangle, and both paintings contain the depiction of a pet. Manet’s reference is obvious.

Sleeping Venus, Giorgione, 1508 – 1510, via Wikiart

Before the exhibition of Olympia, however, the traditional Salon de Paris had never been exposed to the depiction of a non-mythological or non-oriental nude. The academy required references to figures of the past and from mythology or to persons that are exempted from Western moral ideals in order to accept nudity in art. Olympia has, on the contrary, no previous and no oriental model. Even more so, it alludes to Alexandre Dumas’ eponymous antagonist in his novel The Lady of the Camellias that had just been published a couple of years before. In addition, the name “Olympia” was a popular nickname for a prostitute at that time.

Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538 via Medium

The symbolism in Manet’s painting has to be interpreted within this intended context. While in Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” the maidservants are busy with a wedding chest and a sleeping dog is resting at Venus’ feet, alluding to domestic loyalty, Manet has painted a black cat instead, standing for promiscuity and commonly understood as a bad omen. Furthermore, the servant in Manet’s painting is handing over a flower bouquet, which is considered to be a traditional gift from lovers. Having made clear that Olympia is a prostitute, her direct eye contact with the viewer becomes deeply controversial, since this was a privilege that was usually only given to a client. With Olympia, Manet succeeds to transfer moral responsibility on the viewer.

Aspect du Salon le jour de l_ouverture, Honoré Daumier, 1857

But it was not only the motif that caused a scandal. It was also Manet’s painting style. He refrained from applying detailed nuances between bright and dark, making the painting look two-dimensional. Gustave Courbet commented that it all looked very flat, without any relief. However, other critics such as Émile Zola have praised Manet’s radical way of painting. By refraining from the attempt of modelling through paint and of creating a false three-dimensionality, they saw in him a true revolutionary.

The Tempest by Giorgione

The artist Giorgione is considered to be the biggest mystery in art history. Little is known about his birth year, his teachers (although the influence of Giovanni Bellini has been attested by many scholars), and his clients – despite all the research that has been done on him and his œuvre. However, since Giorgione did not sign his works, we cannot say with certainty how many paintings he has created throughout his lifetime.

Madonna and Child, Giovanni Bellini, 1510, via Wikiart

Giorgione was born around 1477-8 in Venice, with the name Giorgio da Castelfranco. He initiated the High Renaissance style in Venice and became an influential Italian painter. His most famous work The Tempest epitomizes his mysterious and moody painting style. It shows an evocative pastoral scene which is among the first of its kind in Venetian painting

What is it that makes this artist so fascinating, causing a century-long debate?

Giorgione was a free spirit. He challenged the Christian conventions of society and the ideals of antiquity while determining the works of contemporary fellow artists. He was free-spirited enough to create his own motifs and to paint them uncompromisingly. He would start to paint aimlessly and gradually adapt his compositions until he would finally find an idea, stumble upon what he was actually looking for in the first place. His method of applying colors represented his individuality as well. He refrained from rigorous contours, working almost exclusively with the inherent power of his color palette.

The Tempest, Giorgione, 1506 – 1508, via Wikiart

Due to this artistic freedom, the works that Giorgione has created are subject to a high degree of ambiguity. In The Tempest, which is exhibited in the Gallerie dell’Accademia of Venice, Giorgione has depicted two figures that don’t seem to be entirely a part of the composition. It’s a woman breastfeeding a child, painted in a much lighter color tone than its surrounding so that the attention is purposely drawn on them.

Furthermore, and more importantly, the woman looks back at the viewer, peacefully, in a completely serene way. It seems as if she wouldn’t even have noticed the storm, the lightning and the thunder that is raging behind her back. She also hasn’t noticed the man who is standing in the front left corner of the painting, looking towards her direction. It’s as if she and the child wouldn’t merely belong to the painting’s reality. Instead, she prefers to interact with our world. She looks at us, we look at the man, the man looks at her, and so forth.

The mystery and fascination revolving around Giorgione is as endless as the circle into which the artist traps the viewers of his painting. You can try to break it through. Or you can just enjoy and indulge into it.

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By Marie-Joelle EschmannSotheby’s Institute of Art CertificateMarie-Joëlle works as a communication specialist and contributing writer. Originally from Switzerland, she is currently living in Istanbul from where she travels to ancient historical sites such as Ephesos in Turkey or Persepolis in Iran. She has a deep interest in art and art history and holds a certificate from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.