I started traveling because I wanted to see, in person, all of the works of art that I had read about. Along the way I discovered some of the incredible stories that accompany them. From crude Cubism to illicit Impressionism to prurient PopArt to racy Rococo. Here is a small selection of the world’s most scandalous art… art that I consider well worth a trip to see in person, no matter how far you have to travel to do so!
“Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemesia Gentileschi, 1614-1620
Artemesia Gentileschi was a female artist in the 17th century whose career revolved around painting women who were wronged and strong. And she had a reason. As a young woman she was the student of an artist called Tassi who abused her. Usually a woman who was raped was married off to the man who raped her in order to preserve her honor. That kind of sticks in your craw, doesn’t it? Tassi refused to do so. Women couldn’t press charges in 17th century Florence, so her father had to do it for her.
The trial was definitely not made to protect victims and Artemesia was subjected to exams with an audience and torture in the courtroom to ensure that she was being truthful. Women had very little recourse and you can imagine that they likely had very few emotional outlets. Luckily for Artemisia her father was an artist too and in those days women mostly learned art from their father. Now, all of her art is a statement on social justice and women’s rights but this painting specifically seems to depict her revenge on Tassi.
The story behind this scandalous art goes that Judith, an Israeli woman, was assisted by her maid in sneaking into the Assyrian camp and killing Holofernes, a general. The story hails from the Book of Judith and it was a widely painted topic. Artemesia’s version of it stands out, not just because of her backstory, but because her backstory seems to have fueled the violence that permeates this painting. You can see the knowledge in the eyes of Holofernes of his impending death and the whole scene evokes a strong reaction from the viewer.
There are two versions of this painting so you can enjoy it in the Uffizzi gallery in Florence or the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples. I guess it will depend on if you want wine in Tuscany or pizza in Naples!
“Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” by Pablo Picasso, 1907
You can identify a Cubist painting by the geometric shapes that depict real-life subjects. A well-known Cubist was the one and only Pablo Picasso. “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” is a great example of this type of painting and it depicts ladies of the night. The ladies in the painting are posed and/or adorned in such a way that previous works of art are recalled. The woman on the left is in the traditional Egyptian pharaoh pose and the two on the right are sporting African tribal masks.
Picasso’s radical departure from traditional painting conventions and the shock value of a bunch of naked prostitutes portrayed geometrically has made this work of art earn its fame.
If you’re ever in New York City go to the Museum of Modern Art to view the masterpiece yourself.
“Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” by Édouard Manet, 1862-1863
This painting by Édouard Manet was considered extremely scandalous, not because the women in the painting are nude, but because the subjects appear to be in modern clothing and the ladies are nude in the presence of men. Additionally, there is no religious or mythical reason for the women to be nude in the woods which means that they were gasp naked for fun! This was simply not done in social convention at the time and the painting was not accepted in polite society. For me, this is a crazy departure from the sensual, sexual French that we hear about in history.
Travel to Paris and go to Musée d’Orsay to view this in person.
Prurient Pop Art
“Chair” by Allen Jones, 1969
This piece of “art” by Allen Jones is so blatantly chauvinist, I probably don’t have to explain much about why this chair is a problem. First of all, it invites people to sit on a woman. Sit on her. Like she’s furniture (and in this work of “art” I suppose she is furniture). The “seen but not heard” mentality permeates this piece (of shit) and it’s easy to see why it caused an uproar. Alarmingly, this piece is one of three in a series. I could go on but I think it speaks for itself. The piece is currently owned by the Tate Modern Museum in London, but is not currently being displayed.
“The Swing” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard
You can identify Rococo art by the frilly, wispy clothing of the upper class while they wile away the hours in nature in frivolous abandon. To me, this piece is the hallmark of Rococo art. It’s already questionable with the gentleman on the ground looking up the skirt of the woman on the swing. And what the hell is the deal with the clergyman in the background pushing her?
Well, the story goes that a certain French aristocrat commissioned the painting and had wanted the woman on the swing to be painted in the likeness of his mistress with a bishop from the Church pushing her on the swing. Several painters turned down the commission. As many painters do, Fragonard made his own mark on the commission. Rather than a bishop, Fragonard painted the mistresses husband and painted the lusty aristocrat on the ground.
Notice the light shining on the aristocrat as he looks up his mistress’s dress with the shadows playing across her husband in the background. Every part of this painting illustrates how illicit the scene is with even the little putti (chubby children in paintings, usually naked) with his fingers on his lips conveying the secret.
You can view the painting for yourself in the The Wallace Collection in Hertford House, London.
How far would you travel to see a work of art in person? Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions on the scandalous art featured above or any other risque art around the world that you liked or disliked!