Top 5 Provocative Art Exhibitions

For centuries, works of art have been subjected to public and private criticism. It’s simply a part of the artistic process. That said, while the creation of art takes talent and vision, so too does the exhibition of masterpieces. After all, what is art without someone to criticize it?!

One event, in particular, sparked a feud between artists and art critics that, to one degree or another, remains to this very day. The event took place at the famous Paris Salon in 1863, where art critics decided which pieces would (and would not) be featured in the esteemed exhibit. 

The jury of 1863 was particularly harsh, rejecting more than half of the entries. The ensuing scandal became so contentious that Emperor Napoleon III had to intervene and quell the riotous artists. Napoleon proposed an alternative display for the rejected works in the Salon des Refusés, which is French for the exhibition of rejects. Doesn’t sound like the best consolation prize, does it? Nonetheless, the exhibition of rejects attracted more press and public attention than the artists would have received at the Paris Salon. So, as it turns out, even when you lose, you can still come out a winner!

At the turn of the 20th century, new art movements were sprouting up all over the world, revising or even rejecting the modes and styles of the past. This led to even more diversification in art and art criticism. So, let’s take a look at the remaining provocative art exhibitions that pitted innovative artists against harsh public scrutiny!

1. The Last Futuristic Exhibition of Paintings 0.10

"The Last Futuristic Exhibition of Paintings 0.10" took place in Petrograd (modern-day Saint Petersburg) in the winter of 1915. The most memorable painting of the exhibit was the famous "Black Square" by Kazimir Malevich. The skeptical reaction of the public partially stemmed from the placement of the "square" in the red corner of the room. In the Slavic culture of the time, this space was dedicated to icons. As a result, the piece was later nicknamed "the icon of the Russian avant-garde.” Though it may have seemed like a relatively unimportant thing at the time, the “Black Square” served as a turning point in art history, ushering in the dawn of modernism.

Though Malevich managed to present his revolutionary works to the public, the next artist was not so lucky. However, his works remain masterpieces, nonetheless.

2. The Marcel Duchamp Fountain

On April 10, 1917, the Marcel Duchamp Fountain was not accepted for exhibition in New York. The so-called ready-made urinal was an ordinary inverted urinal. It was created for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. Marcel, a member of the jury, offered the piece under an assumed name. Think about it: if you were submitting a urinal as a piece of art, wouldn’t you want to hide your identity, too? 

However, the "fountain" was still rejected by the committee. The jury concluded that they could not consider a piece of plumbing to be a work of art. In response, Duchamp withdrew from the Society of Independent Artists. Despite the committee’s rejection, the fountain is considered one of the greatest works of its era, as it marked the beginning of a new direction in art history that still exists today - conceptualism. Within this movement, objects and works of art are not judged on physical expression, but rather semantic, ideological meaning.

It’s important to remember that clashes in the artistic sphere not only occur at the social level but sometimes at the political level as well. The next exhibition caused so much political turmoil that it played a significant role in the history of 20th century Europe.

3. The Degenerate Art Exhibit

The Exhibition of Degenerate Art took place in the summer of 1937 in Munich, Germany. In order to spread the Fuhrer’s ideology, the Nazi Party held an exhibition of "Degenerate Art.” Hitler was a strong opponent of modernist art, therefore he created the exhibition as a way to build public support for the destruction of such pieces. Posters that advertised the exhibition included photographs of disabled or mentally ill citizens. This method helped coax public “anger and disgust” with art that did not reflect the ideologies of the new regime.  

Over the six-week exhibit, more than one million Germans came to see the “degenerate” works of art. Though the works were intended to be destroyed, they began to appear in various European exhibits after World War II and the fall of the Nazi Party. As it turned out, greed proved more important than ideology. Thus, many works were sold at auction to replenish Germany’s military budget.

Speaking of ideologies, an artist's ideas are often more important than his or her actual creations. This is perhaps best exemplified in Yves Klein’s iconic exhibition of “The Void.”

4. The Exhibition of “The Void”

Yves Klein decided to look inside himself with the help of Zen Buddhist meditation. This required an empty room, where no one and nothing would disturb him. He found such a place in 1958, at the Parisian gallery, Iris Clert. Visitors, standing in a long line, received a blue cocktail at the entrance and entered an empty exhibition hall without furniture. It only featured a painted blue window, blue curtains, and guards at the entrance. The artist laid bare the mechanism of the perception of art, which visitors do not absorb, but exclusively buy. Despite its popularity, we can only imagine that some visitors walked away from the exhibition feeling a little disappointed!

Many people associate works of art with small, tangible objects or intangible, yet impactful ideas. However, the exhibition of large installations and buildings have often been some of the most popular events in modern art history. The final exhibition on our list is no exception.

5. The Weather Project

The most ambitious of modern art exhibitions has to be Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s "Weather Project." It first premiered at the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern Museum in 2003. It’s proven to be one of the most popular installations in the history of the gallery due to its innovative design. To experience the installation, visitors must lay down and bask in the dazzling, artificial sunlight. Eliasson, fascinated by the interaction between man and the environment, acts as the creator of the ambiance, not just the work. If only we could all be so creative! 

Though there have been thousands of art exhibitions over the years, there are a few that really capture the imagination of the public, cause a stir among art critics, or inspire completely new art movements. However, these 5 provocative art exhibitions proved to be more than just temporary art displays. They served as brilliant works of art, important moments in history, and fascinating stories that continue to fascinate art fans around the world!
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