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5 Famous artworks that stirred controversy and rejection

5 Famous artworks that stirred controversy and rejection

Artists have faced rejection for centuries, with critics deeming their artworks too lewd, too political, or simply too ugly

In February 2023, Thanet District Council removed a freezer that formed part of a Banksy mural titled, Valentine’s Day Mascara, in Park Place, Margate. Responding to a public outcry, the council returned the freezer next day.

The elusive Banksy fared far better than a number of other celebrated artists whose public works have been taken down by officialdom.

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)

Adoration of the Lamb van EyckHubert van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb, before 1426-1432

One of the first painters to suffer from the interference of powerful outsiders was Jan van Eyck. The great Flemish artist’s altarpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which stands in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, is nowadays regarded as one of the masterpieces of the Northern Renaissance.

The Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, took a different view.

"Joseph II was so horrified by Van Eyck’s portrayal of the naked Adam and Eve, he ordered them removed"

Visiting the cathedral in 1781, Joseph was so horrified by Van Eyck’s portrayal of the naked Adam and Eve, he ordered them removed.

Soon afterwards they were replaced by a more modest depiction of the first couple wearing clothes made from animal skins. These were far less offensive to visiting royalty and remained in place until the 20th century, when Van Eyck’s original nudes were restored.

Oscar Bjorck (1860-1929)

Emperor Joseph II’s prudishness was echoed by the citizens of Stockholm. When the opera house opened in Sweden’s capital in 1898, the painted panels in the restaurant caused a public outcry.

The work of celebrated Swedish artist Oscar Bjorck depicted scenes from mythology, including scantily clad goddesses and fairies.

Local worthies demanded the offending images be removed. Called in to pass judgement on the matter, King Oscar II of Sweden instead ordered Bjorck to add a little more foliage to the paintings. Sensibilities—and other things—protected, the panels remain to this day.

Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Jose Maria Sert, American Progress, Rockefeller CentreCredit: PortableNYCTours, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Jose Maria Serte, American Progress

The renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was not so open to compromise as Bjorck.

In 1932, committed communist Rivera was commissioned by US businessman Nelson Rockefeller to paint a giant fresco in the foyer of the famous office block at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. The work, Man at the Crossroads, featured crowds of factory workers.

Apparently stung by accusations of “selling out”, Rivera—who’d been paid $21,000 (around $410,000 today) for the fresco—decided to make his protest against capitalism.

"Unbeknownst to Rockefeller, who had approved the original design, the painter added the image of Vladimir Lenin"

Unbeknownst to Rockefeller, who had approved the original design, the painter added the image of Vladimir Lenin to the fresco.

Rockefeller was a millionaire Republican. When he saw the founder of the Soviet Union gazing down at him, he was not amused.

He wrote to Rivera asking him to replace the face of Lenin with that of “some unknown man”. Rivera refused to comply. Following ten months of protests against artistic censorship outside his building, Rockefeller had the fresco plastered over and replaced it with a less controversial work by Spanish artist Jose Maria Sert.

Richard Serra (b.1938)

Rivera would not be the last artist to get into trouble in New York City. Richard Serra is a Californian sculptor best known for his monumental works in urban public spaces. In 1981 his Tilted Arc sculpture was unveiled in Federal Plaza, Manhattan.

Commissioned by the US Government’s General Services Administration, which had offices in the plaza, the sculpture was a 12-feet high wall of steel that stretched for 120 feet and leaned slightly to one side.

The GSA workers who saw it every day protested that it was ugly and oppressive. 1,300 of them signed a petition to have it removed. After much heated debate and a public inquiry, the GSA finally gave up defending the commission.

Tilted Arc was sliced into three pieces and removed in 1989. Its remains are now stored in a warehouse.

Keith Haring (1958-1990)

crack Is whackCredit: gigi_nyc, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr. Keith Haring, Crack is Whack

Pop artist Keith Haring also landed himself in hot water with the authorities in New York. His mural Crack is Wack appeared on the wall of an abandoned handball court near Harlem River Drive in 1986.

A warning against the dangers of crack cocaine at a time when President Ronald Reagan had launched his national War on Drugs campaign, the mural might have been approved by the authorities. Unfortunately, Haring hadn’t sought permission to paint it.

Instead of being congratulated for taking a stand against the evils of drugs, the artist was arrested for disorderly behaviour.

"After voices of support from New Yorkers, Haring was allowed to recreate his work on the original site"

Soon his work of vandalism was being vandalised itself—with the graffiti addition of a pro-cocaine message. Evidently tired of the whole business, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation obliterated Haring’s work with a layer of grey paint.

This wasn’t the end for Crack is Wack, however. After voices of support from New Yorkers, Haring was allowed to recreate his work on the original site, where it can still be seen today.

Banksy’s work in Margate is also safe. A month after it appeared, Valentine’s Day Mascara was carefully removed from Park Place and will be put on display at the seaside town’s Dreamland amusement park.

Banner: Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads, 1933

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