The Art of Controversy: Photos

May 24, 2012 --

Art is meant to evoke a reaction from an observer. Sometimes, however, a painting, sculpture or photograph might not get the reception the artist expected -- or intended. Take, for example, this recent art exhibition that has caught the attention of not only South Africa, where it is hosted, but the world. Titled "The Spear," this painting by Brett Murray, on display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, features South African President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed. The provocative work has become a lightning rod within the art world. Critics don't like it. They allege that it's not only vulgar, but also derivative, copying the same style and color scheme artist Shepherd Fairey employed in his famous poster of President Barack Obama, except with an obscene twist. Zuma himself doesn't like it. He insisted that it be removed from the art gallery, and demanded photos of it be taken down from local newspaper website. And evidently, some art patrons don't like it either. Two days ago, two Zuma supporters vandalized it, drawing a red "X" over the face and smearing black paint all over the portrait. This incident isn't the first time that a work of art has caused a scandal.

Lost Da Vinci Found? Mona Lisa Paint Lends Clue

Decades before Michelangelo carved his famous marble statue of the Biblical King David, the Italian Renaissance artist Donatello created his own statues of David. The first, carved in marble in 1408, early in Donatello's career as a sculptor, showed a young David cloaked in a toga. David became a symbol of a flourishing 15th-century Florence, a rising power among more powerful adversaries. Between 30 and 40 years later, Donatello re-imagined David as a young boy in the bronze statue seen here. This version of David, wearing only a hat, boots and a smirk, is standing on the head of Goliath. Although records of reaction to this bronze casting are scant, this artwork caused a firestorm after it was unveiled, since it was very likely the first freestanding nude sculpture to come out of Italy in roughly 1,000 years. Today, it is recognized as a masterpiece of Renaissance art.

Michelangelo's David Holding Secret Weapon?

Painted by Théodore Géricault around 1819, "The Raft of the Medusa" hides within it a political message that might not be apparent to modern audiences. The painting memorializes the wreck of the Méduse, a French vessel that ran aground in Mauritania, forcing nearly 150 sailors to quickly construct a raft to stay afloat. Nearly two weeks passed before they were rescued by a British ship, leaving only 15 survivors, who suffered from the heat and had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. The wreck was blamed on an incompetent captain, popularly believed to attain his station due to the favoritism of Louis XVIII. (The king in fact had nothing to do with the captain's appointment.) The horrific details in the painting of the men aboard the raft divided art patrons along political lines, with anti-royalists hailing it as a masterpiece and supporters of the crown condemning the artist's provocation.

Scorned Cruise Ship Captain Not Alone in History

"The Night's Watch," a painting by the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn from 1642, is controversial precisely because of its non-controversy. According to legend, "The Night's Watch" was the painting that doomed Rembrandt's career as an artist. The myth asserts that the artwork was negatively received in its time and led Rembrandt's descent into poverty. In fact, in 1967, the Dutch airline KLM even took advantage of the myth with an advertising campaign that read: "See Night Watch. Rembrandt's spectacular 'failure' (that caused him to be) hooted ...down the road to bankruptcy." In fact, the painting was deemed a success as soon as it was unveiled, and the gallery for which it was created long exhibited the work.

When Edouard Manet painted "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe," or "Luncheon on the Grass" when translated into English, there was nothing particularly controversial about painting a person in the nude when it was exhibited in 1863. What set off a firestorm in this particular case was the fact that the female figure in the painting was nude among a series of men, all of whom were dressed in contemporary clothing. Up until then, paintings featuring nudes were frequently adorned in the trappings and style of antiquity invoking Greek and Roman myths.

Rembrandt Self Portrait Detected Under Painting

Manet apparently didn't learn his lesson -- or simply didn't care to, of course -- following the controversy surrounding "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe." The same year that painting was exhibited, Manet followed up with this painting, entitled "Olympia." Although inspired by the classic work, "Venus of Urbino" created some three centuries earlier, Manet's painting shocked audiences when it was first unveiled at Paris Salon in 1865 for its frank depiction of a naked prostitute. In the painting, the prostitute seems to casually dismiss a gift of flowers, presumably from a client, presented by the maid. Instead, she glares mysteriously straight at the viewer of the artwork. The stark realism of the painting in both style and the mannerisms of the subject led it to be deemed vulgar by art patrons of the time.

Unlike many of the entries in this slideshow, "The Gross Clinic," created by American painter Thomas Eakins in 1875, features no nudity or even an implication of sexuality. Instead, the painting encapsulates a scene of what was then a modern scientific marvel: the surgery on a man's leg to prevent the spread of infection, a condition which only a generation earlier would have merited a crude amputation. Eakins observed the operation as Dr. Samuel D. Gross, the dominant figure in the foreground standing above the patient, lectured his students at Jefferson Medical College. By presenting the lesson, Eakins is himself educating 19th-century art patrons on what happens in an operating theater, a procedure not many would have witnessed by that time. Despite the realism of the work and the clear demonstration of high-level technique, critics shunned Eakins' painting as too gruesome and gory to be considered a work of art. Supportive art patrons, on the other hand, have praised the honesty and depth with which Eakins captures his subjects.

How the Civil War Changed Modern Medicine

It's hard to believe that this painting, titled "Madame X," that seems so harmless to the modern observer could have been so controversial in its day. It was created by John Singer Sargent in 1884 and as soon as it was unveiled at the Paris Salon, the painting caused a scandal because of the figure's supposed sexual suggestiveness from an upper-class woman. Sargent originally painted his subject with only one strap on her dress and felt so pressured by its reception that he later added another. The color of the woman's ears, a bright red in contrast to her pale skin, also drew snickers. The work was so widely panned that Sargent left Paris. His subject, Madame Gautreau, a high-society Parisian, was humiliated by the reaction and refused the painting that she had in fact commissioned.

No, this is not a painting of a urinal and it's not a sculpture of a urinal -- not that that would necessarily be an improvement. It's just a urinal. The one thing that distinguishes this urinal from any other you'd find in a men's bathroom is the signature "R. Mutt 1917" written on the front. This artwork, known as "The Fountain," was conceived by Marcel Duchamp in 1917 for an art exhibition in New York by the Society of Independent Artists. Essentially a practical joke by the artist, Duchamp's "Fountain" outraged other artists, and critics denounced it as vulgar and indecent. In fact, the work was so controversial that it had been rejected for the exhibition for which it was created, and even hidden behind a screen when it was finally put on display. The piece has since been hailed as one of the most influential works of art of the 20th century.

Urinal Lets You Pee 'N Play

Painted in 1937 by Pablo Picasso in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, "Guernica" depicts the bombing of a Basque town of the same name on the orders of General Francisco Franco, who ushered in a 36-year-long dictatorship following his victory in the war. Initially exhibited at the Paris International Exposition at the World's Fair that same year, the mural drew its fair share of critics due to its style, with one Germany fair guide calling it "a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year-old could have painted" and the dream of a madman. The mural is now known as one of the most powerful anti-war statements in modern art. During Picasso's lifetime, the painting was housed in New York's Museum of Modern Art, though it was also exhibited in galleries around the world. Picasso refused to allow it to travel to Spain, until the nation was a free and open democracy. On what would have been Picasso's 100th birthday, the mural finally returned to its home, six years after Franco's death. Even with the fight against fascism a relic of the past, the mural continues to be as evocative today as it ever was. In fact, in 2003, when then Secretary of State Colin Powell was making the case for war with Iraq to the U.N. Security Council, a blue curtain was hung over a replica of the painting that adorns the entrance to the council.

Picasso Treasure Trove Sparks Controversy

What could be so controversial about a soup can? Not much, unless you illustrate it and hang it on a wall. Andy Warhol's series of paintings of every Campbell's Soup variety available in 1962 may be worth a fortune today to collectors, with one out of the 32, the tomato soup can, selling for over $9 million at auction in 2010. When they were first exhibited at a Los Angeles gallery, however, this series initially drew strong negative reactions, particularly for its commercial subject matter. In fact, many art patrons thought it was a joke and for a time the exhibit was even deemed a failure. Only five paintings were originally sold. Today, the series is viewed as one of Warhol's crowning achievements for its commentary on pop culture and capitalism.

Campbell's To Phase Out BPA

Although there have been many incarnations of artwork that might be regarded as blasphemous by religious groups, the so-called "Piss Christ" photo by Andres Serrano depicts a crucifix submerged in the artist's urine. The work was part of a series by the artist of religious objects submerged in liquids, and has stoked heated debate about freedom of speech and the sanctity of religion. Funded by a $15,000 grant by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987, this work of shock art drew the ire of U.S. Senators two years later, who questioned why taxpayer dollars were being using to fund its creation. Prints of the works displayed in art galleries have been repeatedly attacked and vandalized by patrons, most recently in 2011, when French Catholic fundamentalists attacked and destroyed it while it was on display in the city of Avignon.

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