They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but what about the paintbrush? Can a piece of art be so significant that it changes the world? Some pieces have had that power. But more than its inherent value, artwork often becomes groundbreaking in part due to the way people react to it and the circumstances that surround it, explains Ted Snell, honorary professor at Edith Cowan University in Joondalup, Australia.
As we will see, the reception of a work and the attitudes of critics and viewers have a lot to do with its impact. Otherwise, a urinal is just a urinal. But we'll get to that.
Here are seven works of art that changed the world:
1. Giotto di Bondone – Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy
Completed in 1305, Giotto's frescoes "pioneered the new form of figurative 'realism,'" according to Daily Art Magazine. In these paintings, Giotto (c. 1267-1337) created 3-D figures that were rooted to the ground and constructed as if they were real human beings with real emotion, says Snell. Although the artist did not use linear perspective – that would be developed the next century – his figures were convincingly represented on a 2-D surface, and that was innovative and new, changing the course of art history and introducing the Renaissance.
2. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – "Death of the Virgin"
A few centuries later, Caravaggio (1571-1610) shook things up when he was commissioned by the Carmelite church and painted Mary without playing to known tropes of her death, like being welcomed into heaven. Instead, Caravaggio showed her at the moment of her earthly death as pale, prone and surrounded by grief, offering a realistic depiction and shifting the way the sacred could be represented. The Carmelites took the painting down almost as soon as it was hung in 1606. Artist Peter Paul Rubens had the opposite reaction, and the painting went on to influence many artists, Rubens included.
"It changed art history, but it also changed our attitudes about death and how subjects are treated," says Snell.
3. Pablo Picasso – "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
After nine months of revision, Picasso (1881-1973) unveiled his massive painting of five women in 1907. It represented a "radical departure from pictorial conventions and ideas about beauty, in addition to introducing the African and Oceanic art as a touchstone for modernist departure from anti-naturalist figuration," explains Michael Rooks, Wieland Family Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, High Museum of Art.
In addition to leaning on art from Africa and the Pacific, the work depicted the figures from various perspectives at the same time, allowing the viewer to, in effect, move around them. With "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," Picasso added a fourth dimension to representation – time, according to Snell.
"Cubism then became de rigueur," he says. "You can't imagine how the history of modern painting would have transpired without it."
4. Marcel Duchamp – "Fountain"
When Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) anonymously submitted a work to the Society of Independent Artists' salon, it was immediately rejected and became instantly famous. Possibly "made" in collaboration with Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the upside-down urinal signed "R. Mutt 1917," questioned whether an artist must make an object in order for it to be considered art or whether choosing it and calling it art could be enough, significantly altering the role of the artist.
5. Frida Kahlo – "Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird"
One of the most important artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) put her emotional and physical pain on the canvas and, like Georgia O'Keeffee, revealed hidden taboo subjects through symbolism of fruit and flowers. She also gained inspiration from Mexican traditions and its pre-Hispanic past. These influences came together in her "Self-Portrait," and her impact has proven long-lasting. Today she remains an "inspiration to young women, people with disabilities, Latinx folks and the LGBQT+ community," according to Distractify.
6. Jacob Lawrence – "The Migration Series"
Exhibited in 1941, "The Migration Series" chronicles the story of the Great Migration, during which 6 million Black Americans moved from the rural South to cities in the North. Lawrence's (1917-2000) 60-painting series "introduced an American narrative from the Black perspective in the form of an epic," according to Rooks. The Museum of Modern Art has characterized it as "a landmark in the history of modern art and a key example of the way that history painting was radically reimagined in the modern era."
7. Banksy – "Girl With Balloon" or "Love Is In The Bin"
British artist Banksy (dates unknown) has produced plenty of groundbreaking work since he started "bombing" walls in Bristol in the 1990s. Case in point – his 2003 painting on the West Bank barrier wall in Jerusalem that depicts a protester throwing a bouquet of flowers.
But in 2018, he shocked attendees at Sotheby's when his "Girl With Balloon" sold for $1.4 million and was immediately destroyed thanks to a shredder the artist had hidden in the frame.
"It got halfway through and jammed," says Snell, who estimates that the value has only increased with the prank. Long term, the work could impact the way in which we value art.