Art has always been a powerful means of expressing ideas, provoking emotions and challenging established norms. However, some works of art have pushed these boundaries further than others, sparking heated debate, controversy and passionate discussion.

In this article, we take a look at the 10 most controversial works of art in history.

Art Shortlist
by Art Shortlist - October 31, 2023

1 - Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe by Édouard Manet

In 1863, Édouard Manet exhibited Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe at the Salon des Refusés in Paris. The painting shocked the public at the time with its crude depiction of a nude woman sitting alongside clothed men.

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, Édouard Manet, 1863

Norms of artistic representation and social behavior were challenged, making this work one of the icons of the nascent Impressionist movement.

2 - Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp presented an ordinary-looking fountain signed "R. Mutt".

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917

This work became emblematic of the Dadaist movement, calling into question what could be considered art. The very idea of presenting a urinal as a work of art was deeply controversial.

3 - Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Guernica, a painting created by Pablo Picasso in 1937 in reaction to the brutal bombardment of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, provoked considerable controversy.

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937

The work poignantly expresses the pain and terror of war, but has been criticized by some for its cubist style and political message.

To find out more about this masterpiece, we invite you to read our deciphering of this landmark painting.

4 - Piss Christ by Andres Serrano

In 1987, photographer Andres Serrano created Piss Christ, a photograph depicting a crucifix immersed in a urine container.

Immersion (Piss Christ), Andres Serrano, 1987

This work sparked off debates on freedom of artistic expression and religion, provoking passionate reactions on both sides.

5 - My Bed by Tracey Emin

British artist Tracey Emin created My Bed in 1998, displaying her own unmade bed with dirty underwear, used condoms and garbage.

My Bed, Tracey Emin, 1998

This work provoked strong reactions, ranging from perplexity to anger, while questioning notions of vulnerability and decadence.

6 - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso

The first exhibition of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907 caused a veritable uproar. This work by Pablo Picasso features distorted, angular faces, breaking with the artistic conventions of the time.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907

Strongly criticized for its radical departure from traditional representations of beauty.

7 - Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna

In the 1480s, Andrea Mantegna painted The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, a work that has been censured several times throughout history for its crude, realistic depiction of Christ's body.

The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Andrea Mantegna, 1480

This painting has provoked debate about artistic dignity and decency.

8 - Olympia by Édouard Manet

Olympia, painted by Édouard Manet in 1863, caused a scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon.

Olympia, Édouard Manet, 1863

This painting depicts a nude woman looking directly at the viewer, which was seen as a bold challenge to the norms of female representation at the time.

9 - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst is renowned for his controversial works of art, including this 1991 piece featuring a dead shark preserved in formaldehyde.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damien Hirst, 1991

This work has been criticized for its shocking use of death in art, and some even see it as a cruel and disrespectful depiction of the animal world.

10 - Comedian by Maurizio Cattelan

This work caused a sensation and considerable controversy when it was exhibited at the international contemporary art fair Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2019. Comedian appears to be a banana stuck to a wall with grey adhesive tape.

Comedian, Maurizio Cattelan, 2019

The banana itself is an ordinary fresh banana. The work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity and specific instructions for its installation. It is important to note that the work consists of the banana and its installation method, which means that the banana must be replaced periodically to prevent it from rotting.

At the time of its exhibition, Comedian attracted considerable media attention and generated lively discussion in the contemporary art world. Some hailed the work as a reflection on the value of art and the notion of ephemerality, while others criticized it as an example of contemporary art that has become excessively commercialized and focused on sensationalism.

These ten works are just a few examples of the many creations that have shaken up conventions, challenged norms and provoked controversy throughout the history of art. Each of them has contributed to broadening our understanding of what art can be, reminding us that art is fertile ground for debate and reflection.