The Top 8 Historically Scandalous Images That Are Completely Normal Now

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Before the age of reality TV and Playboy, what kind of images made for scandal?

Amidst the hubub of Miley Cyrus's apparently rage-inducing VMA performance, we thought it might be fun to put together a list of images that were once career-ruining scandal machines, but which now appear normal. Several of them are even religious icons. Rest assured, Miley: this too shall pass.

8. A Good Story (Griffith & Griffith)

Before the literal rise of hemlines in the 1920s, stockings were intended as undergarments only, never to be seen in public. Images of these 1901 "party girls" were the equivalent of our Lindsay Lohan crotch shots.

7. Olympia (Manet)

Olympia was scandalous, not for its nudity, but for the confrontational gaze of its subject. When he painted Olympia in 1863, Manet drew on a series of Venuses popular in the Western art canon. Previous Venuses, however, were demure and relatively unadorned. In contrast, Olympia — slang for prostitute at the time — wears an orchid in her hair, a bracelet, pearl earrings, and an "oriental" shawl, all of which would read as wantonly sensual the same way a pair of thigh high boots might read today.

6. Le Smoking (Yves Saint Laurent/Helmut Newton)

Billed as "the tuxedo for women," Le Smoking was designed in 1966 by Yves Saint Laurent. Le Smoking was the first high fashion pant suit for women. Critics held the 1965 YSL line in high regard but many Manhattan restaurants refused to serve women who sported the tuxedo. Post controversy, Helmut Newton famously photographed Le Smoking, pictured at right (1977). The suit is now considered iconic and its permutations continue to appear on runways today.

5. The Raft of Medusa (Théodore Géricault)

Not dissimilar to the controversial Rolling Stones photo of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, The Raft of Medusa would have been immediately recognizable to 1819-era audiences. Géricault based the image off a horrific and much publicized shipwreck years prior to the painting's release. Accounts of the wreck described "unheard-of sufferings" in which nearly 150 survivors of the crash boarded a raft for 13 days with only one bag of biscuits and a cask of wine. At the time of the raft's rescue, only 15 men remained, the others having committed suicide, been thrown overboard, or consumed as food. In addition to its gory source material, The Raft of Medusa became controversial for its iconography, which was interpreted as a critique of the recently restored French monarchy and a defense of abolitionism, thanks to the prominent display of a black man at the raft's helm. For his efforts, Géricault earned 20,000 francs and a new commission, though he was also billed by critics as repulsive: "The goal of painting is to speak to the soul and the eyes, not to repel."

4. Anne Kellerman's Swimsuit (Anne Kellerman)

Anne Kellerman, synchronized swimmer, may appear modest to modern eyes, but at the turn of the century her leg revealing one-piece was lewd enough to merit an arrest. In 1907 women were expected to go to the beach in dress-pants hybrids. Kellerman's defense was simple: “I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.” The swimmer made waves a second time when she appeared as a mermaid in the 1914 film, Neptune’s Daughter. Her costume consisted solely of what the New York Times described as an “outfit” (scare quotes theirs) made of “nothing but a body stocking and a flowing wig, giving the impression of total nudity!” Note the exclamation point.

3. David (Donatello)

Donatello's bronze rendition of the Biblical fighter was highly controversial in the 1440s for its gender bending and homoerotic undertones. From PBS: "A playful, sensuous, and androgynous hero, “David” was the first life-size nude to be cast in bronze since Classical times. To create such a homoerotic hero could have been seriously dangerous for Donatello without the support of the Medici. Cosimo placed the statue in the center of the courtyard of the Medici Palace where it was visible to all." Contemporaries also had some concerts about the political implications of the statue. An inscription on the statue reads, "The victor is whoever defends the fatherland. God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe."

2. The Last Judgment (Michelangelo)

Michelangelo's The Last Judgment incited panic among the artist's contemporaries for its use of nudes. According to the Vatican Museum website, Papal Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena condemned the fresco as dishonest: "It was most dishonest in such an honoured place to have painted so many nude figures who so dishonestly show their shame…it was not a work for a Chapel of the Pope but for stoves and taverns." The masterpiece continued to attract controversy until the Council of Trent in 1564, when the council elected to cover nude figures with pants-like drapery (called "braghe"). Fun fact: Michelangelo allegedly included Cesena in the fresco as a big-eared Minos, judge of the underworld.

1. Portrait of Madame X (John Singer Sargent)

While to modern viewers this portrait might appear the epitome of class, at the time of the painting's display Portrait of Madame X was a near career ruiner for Sargent and his socialite muse, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Viewers in 1884 — the year of the portrait's salon debut — found the woman's likeness garish, lamenting the dress's plunging neckline, falling strap (later correctively painted back on her shoulder), and the model's greenish pallor. Critics also objected to Madame Gautreau's vanity, marked by her contorted pose and powdered face. The New York Times jabbed, "The pose of the figure is absurd, and the bluish coloring atrocious.” According to author David McCullogh, although Madame Gautreu and her mother had seen the painting in its various stages and even consented to the depiction of the dress's shoulder strap, Gautreau's mother was perturbed by the painting's reception: "“All Paris mocks my daughter,” she said. If the painting were to stay on exhibit, she would “die of chagrin.” Allegedly, Sargent and Gautreau never spoke again.


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