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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Delhi North chapter.

Artists have always been misinterpreted because their work portrays something that the majority of the masses can’t grasp. Usually, what they want to say is about their own life, the sorrow and suffering they have been through or a catastrophe they have witnessed. At times, they even use it to depict some form of an incredibly complex social structure or a kind of social dilemma. They strive to express it via their artwork to engage with the masses. Their main purpose is to encourage the spectators to reflect beyond what they perceive to be ideal notions. 

Being a budding artist myself, I understand that people don’t always comprehend what we are trying to say, and therefore interpret it in unanticipated ways. While some artworks become a source of conflict and controversy, others are interpreted humorously.

So, here I’ve compiled a list of 10 such pieces of art that we’ve all been misinterpreting for decades, along with my understanding of them from the artist’s POV!

“Nature forging a baby” by Rose

Since nothing much is known about this artwork, which is based on a copy of 13th-century poetry by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, it is usually displayed out of context.

Honestly, we can’t blame anyone for misinterpreting this one. The picture depicts a lady striking a child with a hammer and another grey, lifeless newborn laying to the side. The lady, however, is not a baby murderer, as the title implies. She is, in fact, a representation of Mother Nature, who does her task by forging infants with a hammer and an anvil. Strange, right?

“Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano

Andres Serrano, a New York-based photographer, is perhaps the most polarising figure on my list. Serrano is widely recognized for his paintings, the reason being that they raise questions about sex and religion in society, thus resulting in controversy and debate.

Impression (Piss Christ), his most contentious piece, features a tiny plastic crucifix soaked in the artist’s own urine. In 1987, he made this work of art. It’s also the one that gets the most criticism. Blasphemy accusations were leveled against the artist, which he passionately disputed as a Catholic, claiming to misunderstand. As a result of the dispute, he lost financing and received death threats.

His perception of the matter was radically different. As a Christian, he regarded his artwork as a religious message that exposes the complex interplay between the holy and the profane. The substance that was utilized wasn’t picked at random. He had his own explanations but claimed that no one ever asked him why. The urine, like the blood, comes from Christ, and there is still a sacred component in the concept.

I believe people should be open-minded about art and shouldn’t let it divide us into opposing political camps. It should be up to us to appreciate or dislike any work of art.

“The Happy Accidents of the Swing” by Fragonard 

The Happy Accidents of the Swing, a renowned rococo artwork, is surely a joyous sight. It has also appeared in Disney’s movie Frozen for a brief moment. It was during a particularly pleasant sequence when Princess Anna gets lovestruck by Hans (a charming prince) and is dancing and goofing around in her palace and this piece was shown to depict her happiness and joy. Fragonard, on the other hand, had a deeper meaning in mind for his work than Disney may wish to evoke. That’s right — This lovely piece of art is about sex!

The picture portrays a young lady swinging freely in a lovely garden with her young lover, while her cuckolded husband waits in the distance, oblivious to the presence of the other guy. The image is surrounded by rosebushes, which were considered a typical emblem of feminine sensuality. In addition, the young lover has thrown his hat into the bushes. It may sound strange, but a man’s hat was frequently used to disguise an erection during the time. As a result, the hat in the bush is a rather obvious lowbrow metaphor. The woman’s shoe, which has been thrown off in her swinging action, is another clue.

While The Swing is clearly a lovely painting, we all wish someone had told us the story behind it before they started showing it in children’s films.

“Sensation” by Charles Saatchi

She is considered the most heinous lady in the United Kingdom. In 1997, she was on display at the Royal Academy of London, where the entire world could view her. The show, named Sensation, included artworks created by young artists from Charles Saatchi’s collection. Marcus Harvey’s huge picture of Myra was one of them. A lady who, with her partner, raped, tortured, and assassinated five teenagers ages 10 to 17 in the 1960s. Their bodies were buried near Manchester in a moorland. Without a doubt, this work of art sparked widespread indignation in the United Kingdom and beyond.

The painting was damaged by the public during the show and had to be protected by a screen. The backstory of the speech was harrowing. The painting is pixelated and indistinct, but closer inspection reveals the handprints of a toddler. Because Myra was regarded as a thorn in British history, the public’s unfavorable response was natural. Is this dreadful piece of art really worthy of any attention?

“Cafe Terrace at Night” by van Gogh

It’s not surprising to see religious elements in Van Gogh’s paintings, since he was the son of a minister and a deeply religious artist himself. This particular artwork displays a basic street view of a café, with 12 persons seated, and one dark figure sliding away from view. The primary person, who is standing, is clad in white, while the rest are dressed in crimson or black. The white figure is said to symbolize Jesus, while the dark figure represents Judas. Several academics have supported the notion, but it has yet to be proven. Don’t you think it’s plausible?

“Melting Clocks” by Salvador Dali

The Persistence of Memory, popularly known as “Melting Clocks,” is a surrealist painting we all know and adore. Its popularity is so widespread that it has made appearances in The Simpsons. Recently, companies have even started marketing Dali-themed inspired timepieces!

Despite its enduring appeal, many art critics misread Salvador Dali’s work when the now-famous picture was shown in 1932. Many people thought the delicate, egg-like pocket timepieces symbolized the fluidity and malleability of our understanding of time and place. As a result of this interpretation, it was assumed that Dali had an Einstein-level comprehension of the theory of relativity.

When asked why he chose to paint his renowned clocks, the artist explained that the picture of Camembert cheese melting in the sun inspired him. It’s not quite what we were anticipating, but it’s pretty Dali-esque, anyway.

“Luncheon on the Grass” by Edouard Manet

You’ve undoubtedly seen this artwork before if you’ve ever taken a high school art class. Female nudity became more prevalent in classical art, yet it was never widely accepted, and we have gotten conditioned to prominent nudes to some extent. Manet’s work, however, stood out even in an era when provocative painters dared to represent women in all their nude splendor.

A picnic scene with a nude woman staring at the observer, two bourgeoisie guys conversing alongside her, and a fully dressed woman in the background is shown in this impressionist painting. The painting was exceptional in the sense that painted nudes previously tended to show gods like Venus or Aphrodite. Manet’s subject is a regular woman—a prostitute and he wanted to portray women as mortal and concrete humans rather than immortal figures. The picture might also be a reference to France’s severe prostitution problem at the time. 

The painting was rejected and it left Manet feeling like his work had been completely misinterpreted and misunderstood. Poor guy.

“Dripping” by Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock received a lot of backlash from the art community for his groundbreaking work. His controversial artistic approach consisted of pouring paint directly from the can over a giant canvas lying horizontally on the floor, a method known as “dripping.”

These massive, wildly abstract works, which were the originators of the Abstract Expressionism movement and opened the way for conceptual art as a genre, were in principle a reflection of the artist’s inner self. Pollock’s work, like Warhol, was scrutinized, with allegations of lack of technique and depth leveled at the dramatically different approach.

Today, Pollock’s contribution to the art world is widely appreciated. However, even in the 21st century, there are some who question this style of abstract art.

“Can Art” by Andy Warhol

Who’d have guessed that a basic can of soup could be combined with artwork? Such a bold move could only be pulled off by Andy Warhol. He ate this soup every day for 20 years before incorporating it into art history. Was it really that simple? The critics, in fact, were going mad. How might an artist reduce an established discipline like painting to a quick trip to the grocery store? Pop Art, on the contrary, moved beyond these ordinary objects to include themes from mass culture, themes that were in line with the realities of consumer society.

“Erased de Kooning Drawing” by Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg sought to see if an artwork could be made by deleting markings rather than adding them in his experimental piece — Erased de Kooning. He requested his friend, the successful Dutch artist Willem de Kooning, for one of his new works, which he proceeded to erase after adding the frame and a caption.

The provocative and complex artwork attracted mixed reactions. Some people praised the piece’s premise, while others labeled the erasing as sheer vandalism. The work’s contribution by de Kooning simply added to the debate’s complexity.

While perspectives on these controversial artists are hugely polarising, we can all agree that these divisive pieces start important conversations in the art world. From debates around censorship and complex legal battles to the birth of entire artistic movements, these pieces are necessary for the progression of art. What do you think of these controversial artworks?

Kenisha Aswal

Delhi North '24

Kenisha is a dynamic Senior Editor at Her Campus Delhi North, overseeing article publication, operations management, and content refinement. Beyond her editorial pursuits, she is a dedicated 3rd-year Economics student at Hindu College. Her academic journey is fueled by a profound love for economics, as she navigates the exciting crossroads of her education, contemplating the path that will allow her to make a substantial and enduring impact in this field. An avid reader, a movie buff, and someone who cherishes deep and thought-provoking conversations. In her leisure hours, she indulges in her love for philosophy, immersing herself in profound discussions and the exploration of timeless questions.