We here at ArtFIND.ca consider ourselves to be pretty art savvy. Through our experience of cataloging our vast collection to get our website up and running and researching various works of art, we have definitely learned a few new things. And the one thing that was abundantly clear to us all, is that art can be very subjective. What I personally find to be beautiful, thought-provoking or pleasing to the eye may not necessarily affect my colleagues in the same way.

In fact, at ArtFIND.ca we have had several lively discussions, disagreements and debates at our office as to why we find a certain work of art to be pleasing to us as individuals. We all have our favourite artists and pieces…as well as our not-so favourite pieces. But why is that? Sometimes it is more than just a personal preference or opinion. Art will sometimes evoke emotions in an individual , but once questioned, cannot cite a definitive reason why we feel this way. But isn’t that what art is really about?

So, that leads us to our blog topic for this week: Controversial Art!

For centuries, artists have been at the forefront of major cultural shifts. They have challenged authority. Forced us to re-think our social conventions. And even mocked traditional ideas of what art is.

If a work of art can cause viewers to question their roles in life, the role of art, or the state of the world, one may consider that a success. Different works of art cause controversy for different reasons.

So, what is it that makes art controversial? Is it based on our personal beliefs? Our religious upbringing? Our political stance? Why we find certain works of art offensive is really about perception. What one person may find controversial or offensive may not be for someone with a different set of personal rules, morals or religion.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignor




#1 – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s 1907 painting shows five nude prostitutes with startling appearances, which was a lot different from classical female nudes. The five prostitutes all exhibited the hard-angled and semi-abstract style that made Picasso so famous. The women in the painting look out at the viewer in a confrontational manner. The distortion of their faces and the sharpness of their bodies appear aggressive, a far cry from the soft, ultra-feminine nudes of earlier centuries. In addition, two of the nude figures have faces that resemble African tribal masks. The painting’s blending of styles and its revolutionary appearance caused controversy among the public and the art community itself. It was deemed “immoral” in large part because of the “savage” appearance of the women.

So, in our current age, wouldn’t the critics of 1907 fall off their chairs with the widespread acceptance of tattoos and piercings on the women of today? Such savagery!



The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili at ArtFIND.ca





#2 – The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took particular offense to this 1996 painting which shows a Black Madonna surrounded by what appear to be butterflies. Upon closer inspection, they are not butterflies at all, but images cut from pornographic magazines. And if that wasn’t shocking enough, the painting also includes elephant dung. It sparked serious controversy when it showed at the Brooklyn Museum and Giuliani threatened to evict the museum over the exhibit. In addition, a disgruntled visitor smeared white paint all over the painting in protest.

Even after 20 years, I believe a lot of people would still take offense to this painting. Not so much by the subtle use of pornography, but actual animal dung? Personally, I’m not sure how close I would be willing to get to a piece of art like that!



The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins






#3 – The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins

American artist Thomas Eakins earned distinction for portraits so true to life they could almost be mistaken for photographs. This 1875 painting was first submitted to an exposition but was rejected because of its graphic gruesomeness. Few artists dared to portray the act of surgery on a live patient as Eakins does here. This painting became very controversial because of its odd representation, which involved a sexually vague patient and what is thought to be a mother sitting beside him/her. And as if that wasn’t graphic enough, the painting was also splattered with blood.

Try to imagine yourself seeing this painting for the first time in the year 2016. Does it offer the same shock as it would have in 1875 because of its realistic and graphic nature? Or because of all the graphic content we are exposed to as a society on a daily basis, does it lose some of its shocking punch?




Trench Warfare by Otto Dix




#4 – Trench Warfare by Otto Dix

Otto Dix, a German born artist was known for his horrid war paintings. This particular painting from 1932 is the artist’s portrayal of Berlin. When the Nazis came into power, Dix was regarded as a degenerate artist. The Nazis did not accept his brutal and realistic view of war in Germany and the painting was ultimately burned because of its gruesome portrayal of the war.

84 years later, I believe this particular painting still delivers quite a striking punch because of its violent nature…even with some of the horrible events we may see on the Internet or the evening news.



Young Sick Bacchus by Caravaggio





#5 – Young Sick Bacchus by Caravaggio

In this 1593 painting, Sick Bacchus features as its subject, a pale figure with blue lips, which closely resembles someone with the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. By the time the artist painted this, he himself was suffering from the disease because of his multiple partners. Many found this painting offensive because it symbolizes sexual liberation.

How far we have advanced when it comes to the subject of sexuality. In today’s times, we are encouraged to educate ourselves and especially the young people of today with regard to safe sex and good sexual health. A far better approach in my opinion than being outraged and silent about the subject.




Over the years, one thing is quite clear; the well-known works of art above have stirred up heated debates all over the world.

Have we become desensitized in our modern age of the Internet? Would any of the pieces we’ve mentioned in our blog still shock us in this day and age? What are some of your favourite works of art? Let us know what you think in the comments!


Lisa O’Callahan

Director at ArtFIND.ca


Interested in finding out the difference in various prints?  Check out our first blog by clicking the title below!


Limited Edition Print, Artist Proof, Remarquee, What’s the Difference?



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