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The Most Controversial Artworks in History

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Can paintings change the world? Are there any specific artworks that sparked controversy?

Art is so charming and some paintings actually have that effect on us that makes us look at it without pause, thinking about it, its creator, connect with it deeply as an idea and think how this idea turned into art that touches our heart, mind, and soul. And also, we can't deny the power of art, and how it changes the way we think.

Some Controversial paintings throughout history have revolutionized the way we think about important topics in life such as social issues, politics, and even art itself. Yes, art is much more than just colors! Artists are creatives who like to share their points of view, feelings, or ideas with others and their artworks are the way to do that.

In this article, we shed the light on some of the most controversial artworks in history!

Are you ready for it?

Olympia, 1863, Edouardo Manet
Olympia, 1863, Edouardo Manet

Olympia, 1863, Edouardo Manet

Nudity, in most paintings, is regarded as an artistic rejection of the male domination gaze. Reclining nudes had been painted by artists for hundred of years, it's not something new or to be surprised about.

Simply, Olympia is a famous painting of a woman lying down and looking at us, so when you look at the painting it will look like if she knows you're watching her. So, what makes Olympia different than any other nude painting? Olympia's pose is directly based on Titian's Venus of Urbino, a painting popular for its shocking sexuality.

Olympia is confrontational, her stare is hard, her hand is also a physical wall to her genitals, doesn't express an invitation. This painting by Edouardo Manet, the French artist who was born on 23 January 1832 into a wealthy family is known as the most controversial painting from the 19th century.

Olympia is painted by using oil on canvas during the realism and impressionism movements. To your surprise, it was very shocking that this painting was a portrayal of the normal woman, however, nude, scandalous, in other words, a proustite.

Olympia was not painted in accordance with the accepted conventions that dictated portrayals of mythological or biblical figures. For sure, it wasn't the accepted depiction of a classical female nude such as a goddess.

And Olympia painting by Edouardo Manet became a turning point painting from the 19th century.

What about the black woman in the back? In Manet's notebooks, he refers to Laure as a "very beautiful black woman", whereas, as an artist, he emphasizes her racial identity much less than some of his compatriots. Laure appears as a servant in Olympia painting, and this scene is more about referring to modern Paris's changing population and is less about her being "exotic". You can check the painting yourself if you ever go to Paris in the Musee d'Orsay.

And the list continues with another nude painting, who does it belong to?

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907,  Pablo Picasso
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, Pablo Picasso

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, Pablo Picasso

Going back in time to 1907 when this painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, was painted in the most popular example of cubism painting. Don't suppose that painting this was a piece of cake, it took a lot of hard work and complete nine months just to reveal the true novelty and genius of Picasso's passion.

Did you know that Picasso kept his painting hidden in his Montmarte studio for a long period of time, and even his own friends were surprised and horrified when they finally got the chance to see it? But we can't judge if he kept it hidden because of their negative reactions.

The public got the chance to see "Les Demoiselles" first at the Salon d'Antin in 1916, even though a photo of the work appeared in The Architectural Record in 1910. Let's say that the painting didn't get credit at first and especially from other artists.

Henri Matisse's reaction was violent as he called the figures in the painting hideous whores, and it didn't stop there, he thought that "Les Demoiselles" which was prepared for over six months to deliver the final creation and hundreds of sketches, was a criticism of the modern art movement and felt that the painting stole the show from his own Le Bonheur de Vivre and Blue Nude paintings.

As seen in the "Les Demoiselles" painting of the naked group of five women with exaggerated faces, Picasso was inspired by the Ethnographic Museum in Paris, Iberian sculpture, and the African masks he saw there. The five women are posed like classical nudes; and not romanticized beauties and the fact that he has shrunk their bodies into a series of sharp, endangering forms gives them a frightening quality, as do their cold, unfaltering stares.

Picasso wasn't only obsessed with African origins only, he was obsessed with primitive art and that is obvious in the masks in the paintings as well as the art of modern-day Portugal and Spain, and the art of ancient Iberia. Picasso, by combining angular Impressionism forms and provocative subject matter, shattered convention and ushered in a new era of Modern art.

According to the art critic Jonathan Jones, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is the rift, the break that divides the past and future.” The title of the painting, "Avignon" refers to the name of a street in Barcelona in a district known for prostitution, therefore, these five women undoubtedly are prostitutes.

It is also believed that "Les Demoiselles" painting is about Picasso's intense fear which the fear of this woman, to be specific, the disease he feared they would transmit to him.

There are more stories to tell about controversial artworks in history. Stay tuned for the upcoming articles!

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