Top Five Most Controversial Art Works

By Kristy MacFarlane

Gustave Courbet,  L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World ), 1866, Oil On canvas, 46 x 55 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris'Origine_du_monde#/media/File:Origin-of-the-World.jpg

Gustave Courbet, L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), 1866, Oil On canvas, 46 x 55 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris'Origine_du_monde#/media/File:Origin-of-the-World.jpg

Gustave Courbet’s career was in many regards a rebellious one, within his revolutionary oeuvre we might however note The Origin of the World (1866) as his most controversial artwork. The painting’s subject matter is unquestionably provocative, featuring a female nude with her legs spread wide, to reveal in detail, her genitalia. The choice to depict only this small portion of her body works to exaggerate the explicit nature of the painting. Inherent to this work is a desire which we see in much of Courbet’s work; to shock and rebel. Courbet boldly sets himself in opposition to the Academies and the long-standing tradition of the idealised nude. While many quite rightfully cite Manet’s Olympia (1865) as the 19th century’s most revolutionary nude, it is in this work that Courbet pushes subject matter to an even more shocking and controversial realm.  

The controversial legacy of this work persists even in to our modern age. While you may view this work in the Musée d’Orsay, sharing the image on Facebook will possibly result in your account being deleted. Facebook is one of the social media platforms that has chosen to censor it due to its explicit nature. Its heightened eroticism sets it apart from other works, and even to this day it continues to draw arguments as to artistic censorship.

Thomas Eakins , The Gross Clinic , 1875, Oil on Canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875, Oil on Canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Thomas Eakin’s too might be considered a revolutionary figure - both within artistic and medical circles. The Gross Clinic (1875) is a realist work like Courbet’s, however, there is a prevailing scientific quality to the work, both in its subject matter and its artistic implementation. It depicts the surgeon Dr Gross performing a procedure on a patient of unknown gender. The mother of the patient covers her face in distress, while Dr Gross stands upright with vivid red arterial blood dripping from his fingers, as students watch attentively in the background. 

When Eakins attempted to display this work in 1876, the piece was censored and rejected due to its explicit nature. While the history of art contains many violent and gory works, never before had a painting captured viscera and gore in such a realistic and surgical fashion. 



Otto Dix,  The Trench , 1920-3, Photograph (painting destroyed).

Otto Dix, The Trench, 1920-3, Photograph (painting destroyed).

When the First World War broke out, German Artist Otto Dix found himself perilously fighting in the trenches of both the Eastern and Western fronts. His paintings, particularly Trench Warfare (1920-3), was created in a rebellious rejection to the propaganda of the growing Nazi state which sought to glorify war. Similar to Eakins, this painting is explicitly graphic. However, it is not horrifying in its surgical precision, but rather in the senseless violence that takes place in the chaotic composition and aggressive brushstrokes. In amongst the dark chaos of the piece, we can decipher figures and body parts, yet none are whole or recognizable. The entire painting makes explicit of the fact that war leaves no one unfractured. 

The controversy of this work does not extend into our modern era, however in Nazi Germany this work was truly contentious. The Tate notes that no fewer than 260 works by Dix were confiscated and destroyed by the Nazis – leaving behind little visual evidence of Dix’s truly astounding artistic career. 


Chris Ofilli,  The Holy Virgin Mary , 1996, Multimedia, Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Chris Ofilli, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, Multimedia, Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) is doubtlessly one of the most controversial paintings produced in contemporary art. Religion is a delicate subject matter, and in this way, we might understand why Ofilli faced so much backlash. The work which depicts the Virgin Mary encircled by cut-outs from pornographic magazines, also rests upon two clumps of elephant dung. For many, this work is iconoclastic. By its inclusion of such sexualised media it is possibly falsely read as making a mockery of the Virgin Mary. However, we must read this painting in a much more nuanced way. The Holy Virgin Mary’s purpose goes far beyond a desire to shock. Ofili does something brave in this work; he reclaims. After we are finished being disconcerted, we begin to question an artistic tradition that has painted the Virgin Mary in the same exclusionary way for centuries. Carol Becker notes that the most controversial aspect of this painting is that Ofili:

“Made his own representation of the Virgin, defiant of tradition.”

The elephant dung upon which the painting rests, comes to be emblematic of this idea of reclaiming- in this work Ofili consciously redefines this subject matter in the history of art, standing in opposition to artistic tradition.

Despite this, Ofilli’s work remains polarising. Opinions and readings on the work vary from a brave and revolutionary effort to reclaim and redefine, to a distasteful artwork through the very construct is iconoclastic nature. During an exhibition the work was vandalized with lashings of white paint which stands as proof of its controversial nature.

Maurizio Cattelan,  The Ninth Hour , 1999, wax, clothing, polyester resin with metallic powder, volcanic rock, carpet, glass, Private Collection.

Maurizio Cattelan, The Ninth Hour, 1999, wax, clothing, polyester resin with metallic powder, volcanic rock, carpet, glass, Private Collection.

As beforementioned with Ofili – a work that presents religious iconography in an atypically way often results in controversy. Cattelan’s career is littered with controversy, for example one of his notorious artworks Novecento (1997) consisted of a dead horse being suspended from the ceiling. Inherent in Cattelan’s oeuvre is a desire to shock and an intention to create controversy. The Ninth hour (1999) could be considered the most striking of his artworks. Its subject matter is intentionally bizarre as it depicts Pope Francis being hit by a meteorite. There are multiple connotations that can be drawn from this, most predominantly the irony of such a religious figure being subject to an almost biblical attack of random chance. In this work, Cattelan attempts to satirise the catholic church - which particularly in the late part of the 20th century faced a great deal of scandal.

Whatever message or satire the work may hold, for many it was a step too far. The response it met in Poland was particularly antagonistic. It was noted that two members of the polish parliament attempted to remove the boulder and stand the figure upright. Many people, including many priests, however jumped to the artwork’s defence however, in a defence of artistic liberty. 


Becker, Carol, “Brooklyn Museum: Messing with the Sacred” in Chris Ofili, Rizzoli, (July 2009)

Denson, Roger, Courbet’s Origin of The World Still Too Scandalous for Media-Savvy Facebook!,The Huffington post., (December, 2017) Accessed on 15/10/2018

Jones, Jonathan, The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins (1875),The Guardian, (August 2002) Accessed on 15/10/2018

Lost Art: Otto Dix (The Trench 1920-3),Tate, (January 2012) Accessed on 15/10/2018

Nyzam, Paul, La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), Memento, (November, 2017) Accessed on 15/10/2018

Young, Alison, Chris Ofilli, The Holy Virgin Mary, Khan Academy, Accessed on 15/10/2018