5 events that shocked the artworld

Scandal and shock are not uncommon in the world of art, modern artists constantly strive to shock or take people out of their comfort zone. This is a byproduct of artists taking stock of what has come before, and seeing that with scandal and shock, often comes press, notoriety, and commercial rewards. I don't want to focus on the shock jockeys who have done things just for the sake of tabloid notoriety. I'm going to focus on artists and events which made waves because of what they did, not because they did something to make waves.

1. Tracy Emin's bed. This is probably one of the most famous and controversial pieces of British art ever created. It truly polarises people, whether they be art lovers or not. So let's break this down to the premise. Emin was at a low point in her life and had taken to bed for four days, not eating anything and only drinking alcohol. When she managed to pull herself free from the mental depression she was in, she looked at the bed and the room and realised that there was a narrative of pain and anguish running straight through it. From the condoms strewn across the rug, to the empty packets of cigarettes and overflowing ashtrays, the installation paints a pretty harsh reality that Tracey was working through at the time. She tends not to talk about the bed that much now, as it has been a focal point of interviews on many occasions since its creation in 1998. Entering it into the Turner prize the same year, was both a stroke of genius and a potential landmine. The explosion of criticism that came with the work was incredible. Newspapers went with headlines like 'Stomach Turner' and focussed on the moral outrage of the display. Fast forward twenty-two years, and today a piece of art that would shed light on mental health would no doubt be warmly welcomed and lauded by the press, ever eager to champion the cause (or so they would have you believe). Not so much the case in 1998 though, Tracey didn't win the Turner prize that year, but her bed took the headlines and it is the piece from that competition everyone remembers. It was sold shortly after for £150,000 to Charles Saatchi, who had a room specially built in his home to display it. In 2014 it sold again for £2.5 million. It has been displayed all over the world and here in Tate Britain among many other museums. Whether you love it or hate it, the bed is a landmark of modern British art and as with all contemporary art, you have to scratch the surface to understand and appreciate it.

Here's a Tate video from 2015 looking back on the infamous bed and all that negative media attention.

2.  There must have been something in the water in 1998, as with Tracey Emin's Bed our next controversy happened in and around the same year. Antony Gormley is another artist who isn't afraid to ruffle feathers, there have been numerous attempts to block various installations by the world-famous artist from being sited. Angel of the North is his most recognisable work to date, "surely that didn't cause controversy when it was being proposed?" I hear you cry. Well, you'd be wrong. From its early planning and proposal, there were massive objections, some of which were fuelled by Gormley's initial reactions to the commission. He made a comment which would come back to haunt him. Being invited to a city planning meeting for the installation of the statue, he refused to attend saying 'I don't do Motorway art'. It didn't go down well and was used as a stick to beat the project and the artist with over a protracted period. The local press drew comparisons to the design of the sculpture with a third Reich statue from the 1930s. Although looking back at these 1990s press reactions there seems have been no limit to the enmity thrown towards British art at that time. There was even a highly motivated campaign to stop its construction called "Gateshead stop the statue". Our ever-useful fast forward button takes us to today, and the Angel of the North is considered a national treasure and a landmark of the north. I would bet that trying to have it removed now would cause several times the outrage and backlash that the original proposal and placement caused, such is its cultural, local, and national importance.

Here's a great video by the Youtube user Forrrge who gives us an eagles eye view of the statue.

3.  Damien Hirst broke onto the art scene along with his fellow YBA's (Young British Artists) in the 1990s and is considered by many to be the leading proponent of the movement. A polarizing figure in the art world who is as adept with a paintbrush as he is shrewd with his investments and money handling. However, his early work with animals in formaldehyde has been a source of much negativity, for many reasons in fact. Some stem from the concept, others from the use of dead animals. Then if you add in the financial value of those pieces, people literally lose their minds. Again these pieces weren't done to grab quick headlines, they had something to say about the fragility of life and the cycle we must all go through during our existence. They made us consider our own lives. His Tiger Shark, otherwise known as - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, really made waves (pardon the pun). It made all the headlines when it was first created, and then again when it was sold, and again when the shark began to decay, and again when it rolled over in the tank and literally went belly up. So Hirst has had to do several maintenance projects on this one piece. It's incredible that an artist would return to a work and continue to maintain it, as it slowly degraded. Paintings and sculptures tend not to have this problem, but newly deceased tissue is permanently trying to decay and Hirst is waging a one-man war against that process, which in itself is quite remarkable. The critics took up arms when the shark was made, animal rights protestors did the same. All of this added to the intrigue by the public who love nothing more than to be shocked and outraged. These works have even found their way into popular culture with the popular TV show Hannibal utilising Hirst's style to stage a grizzly murder.

This Tate interview with Damien Hirst in 2012 takes a look at his famous Shark known as - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

4.  Art forgery can be a potential landmine for collectors and dealers alike. However, some dealers can go to the dark side and embrace this awful practice to the extent that they build a very lucrative business from it. When the inevitable day comes that they get caught (and they always do) the press and art world really go to town on the perpetrators (and rightly so). The Art industry is very small and a galleries reputation is everything, it is something to guard and protect, something that should never be gambled or toyed with. In 2011 a New York institution of art - The Knoedler Gallery closed its doors for the final time after being found guilty of multiple cases of art fraud. For 165 years, the gallery had operated in the big apple and was a landmark in the cultural hub of America. They sold large ticket originals to wealthy patrons, with a stock list which from the outside looked astonishing, they had no shortage of people lining up to invest their hard-earned money in their stock. Being no stranger to scandal, the gallery was accused of dealing in looted Nazi art in the 1990s, and if that wasn't bad enough, it was the turn of the new century that brought about the biggest and ultimate scandal for the gallery. A series of issues with authentication started to appear in the early 2000s and they continued to crop up for the next 11 years until the gallery was forced to close after several successful litigations and founded accusations. Forged works by Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and many more were sold to clients. When the lynchpin of the whole operation was discovered, it was revealed that he was working from a lock-up garage in Queens, the investigators uncovered a long list of works made by Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese artist who created the forgeries with the intent to deceive. A very sad and ignominious end to a business with such a long history.

Here's an ABC News report on the scandal which shook American art collectors.

5.  Art theft is another huge scandal worthy of mention. One in particular stands above all others - The Mona Lisa. In 1911 the most famous painting in the world was in it's home in France at the Louvre Museum in Paris where it had lived since the turn of the 19th century. Prior to that, it had been in Napoleon's bedroom, and before that sequestered away in the ownership of French nobility, only to be 'liberated' by the French revolutionists. However, in 1911 a worker at the Louvre had become annoyed at seeing what he deemed to be an Italian cultural artefact garnering adoration in France and being kept away from its true home. Vincenzo Peruggia took it upon himself to right this (perceived) wrong and take the painting back to Italy for the people. He stole the painting from the walls of the museum and then strangely, seemed quite shocked by the seriousness in which the world and France reacted. So much so, that he was too afraid to do anything with the painting so he kept it hidden in a trunk in his apartment. Two years passed and he became impatient that he couldn't do anything with it, so he took the painting and left France for his homeland. He approached an art gallery owner in Florence to try and broker some kind of reward for returning the painting to Italy. The art gallery owner authenticated the painting and then called the Police to have Peruggia arrested. The painting then went on a much-celebrated tour of Italy and was eventually returned to the Louvre in 1913 to extraordinary worldwide coverage and fanfare, this partly attributed to the painting having the legendary status it enjoys today. Peruggia was jailed for one year and fifteen days for his crime and went back to work as a painter and decorator in France. One side note of interest is that during the two years the Mona Lisa was absent from the Louvre it was sold seven times to wealthy investors. Only after the discovery of the real painting did the buyers realise they'd been duped and that they had indeed bought fake paintings. Serves them right for trying to buy stolen art!

Here's a very early news report on the theft of the Mona Lisa.

What did you think of our top five list? There are many more I could add to the list but it's best to save some for future blogs.


Many thanks for reading this, I hope you enjoyed it.


All Images are mine unless otherwise stated. All opinions are my own and not De Lacey Fine Art Ltd or any other company or body.

5 events that shocked the Art World - G Farmer 2020 © Copyright