From Michelangelo to Banksy: Iconic Art Flexes Throughout Art History`

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, a panel from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.Image © Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons / The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo
Florence Whittaker

Florence Whittaker, Urban Art Specialist & Sales Director[email protected]

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Refining and mastering one's technical abilities is a quintessential human impulse. Nowhere is this instinctual drive so apparent as in the art world; artists have been flexing their skills since the earliest recorded history. While technique may not be the primary aesthetic value of a work (though this can be debated endlessly), having a mastery of technical skill within their chosen artistic medium, enables artists to best express themselves and communicate their ideas with depth and nuance. In this article, we list some of the greatest art flexes in history.

Most artists who become known as ‘show-offs’, do so through developing their technique, pushing the boundaries of their medium, and even developing new techniques, styles and forms of art. It is a sure-fire way of gaining distinction in a vast art scene, and increased recognition leads to more commissions, prestigious patronage and financial stability. Let’s look back at some of the biggest flexes in the history of art:

An image of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo. It is a detailed depiction of several biblical scenes, including the final judgement in the main wall shown here.Image © Vatican Museum / Sistine Chapel © Michelangelo 1508

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel is surely the greatest example of technical virtuoso and artistic splendour in history. Foremost, its realisation was a significant display of skill given that Michelangelo was known for his talent in sculpting, not painting. The legend goes that the commission was originally a setup, with his rivals hoping that he would fail and fall from prominence. The space’s dimensions alone would be a challenge for any artist: 35 metres long and 14 metres wide, with most of the painting being done overhead, it required not just artistic talent but also considerable physical endurance and technical skill. However, Michelangelo embraced the challenge and produced a masterpiece that not only silenced his critics but also cemented his reputation as one of the greatest artists of all time.

He created a complex design that included over 300 figures, showcasing his exceptional ability to depict the human form in a variety of poses. He was innovative in his compositions, which are incredibly dynamic, filled with twisting and turning figures that convey a strong sense of movement, naturalism and drama. This was a departure from the more static and flat compositions usually seen in frescoes of the time, and allowed for his narrative ability to shine – his depiction of stories from the Book of Genesis, from the Creation to the Fall of Man, demonstrate his ability to convey complex narratives visually. His scene of the Creation of Adam, in which God and Adam reach towards each other, is one of the most iconic images in all of the history of art.

This was also a huge intellectual flex: the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is filled with sophisticated theological and philosophical symbolism, such as the arrangement of prophets and sibyls around the central Genesis scenes which suggests a complex dialogue between the Old Testament, Classical Antiquity and the Christian doctrine.

In these ways, Michelangelo demonstrated his technical skill, innovative spirit, narrative ability, competitive nature and understanding of complex symbolism. His work on the Sistine Chapel is still admired and studied for these reasons today, making this one of the most iconic flexes in history.

"[Bramante] persuaded the Pope to get Michelangelo, on his return, to paint the vaulting of the Sistine Chapel. In this way Bramante and his other rivals hoped to confound him, for by taking him from sculpture, in which he was perfect, and putting him to colouring in fresco, in which he had had no experience, they thought he would produce less admirable work than Raphael."
- Giorgio Vasari, The Lives Of The Artists
n image of the urinal that became Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. It is a white urinal, with the signature R. Mutt 1917 on the bottom left corner.Fountain © Marcel Duchamp 1917

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917), a signed urinal presented as art, radically redefined the concept of art itself. By presenting an everyday object – such as a urinal – as a work of art, Duchamp challenged the notion that art must be a unique or beautiful object created by the skilled hand of the artist. This revolutionary idea that paved the way for Conceptual Art, where the idea behind the work is more important than the object itself. Duchamp’s confident rejection of traditional artistic aesthetics is demonstrated by the fact that he chose an object as mundane and unattractive as a urinal, a bold move that demonstrated his independence from conventional tastes and standards.

Duchamp submitted Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists’ 1917 exhibition under the pseudonym R. Mutt. The work was submitted to challenge the Society's rule that any submission would be accepted from artists who paid the fee, but the Society nevertheless rejected it. This rejection sparked a debate about what constitutes art, a controversy that Duchamp arguably anticipated and relished – he often aimed to raise questions about the role of context in determining what is art. By attempting to place a urinal in an art exhibition, Duchamp hypothesised that any object could become art when viewed in a specific context.

With Fountain, Duchamp also introduced the concept of the artist as a curator. By simply choosing an object and designating it as art, Duchamp argued that the artist's choice was a creative act, expanding the role of the artist and the scope of art itself.

While Duchamp's Fountain doesn't flex technical skill in the traditional sense, it showcases a different kind of artistic muscle – intellectual boldness, conceptual innovation and the ability to provoke and challenge established norms. It was through this that Duchamp's Fountain became one of the most influential works in 20th-century art.

“I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”
- Marcel Duchamp
An image of the painting The Persistence Of Memory by Salvador Dalí. It shows a scene in the desert, with several clocks that appear to be melting.The Persistence Of Memory © Salvador Dalí 1931

Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí's The Persistence of Memory from 1931 is a landmark of Surrealism, due to its innovative imagery. The melting clocks depicted have become one of the most recognizable symbols in art history, a striking statement about the fluidity and immutability of time. This is a distinctive vision that showcases Dali's ability to translate complex and abstract concepts into a visual form, demanding great technical Mastery as well as imagination. Dali's painting is executed with a high level of detail and precision, demonstrating a meticulous style and draughtsmanship, which he called "hand-painted dream photographs."

Dalí was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud and the exploration of the unconscious mind; the strange and unsettling images in The Persistence of Memory reflect his interest in dreams, memory and the irrational aspects of the human psyche. Delving into these complex psychological themes Dalí demonstrating his exceptional intellectualism. Dalí’s unique style and eccentric personality also set him apart from other more traditional artists, as he was not afraid to be different or controversial. This willingness to stand out from the crowd, shock others and embody was the ultimate flex.

The lasting impact of The Persistence of Memory is a testament to Dalí's legacy. The painting continues to inspire and influence artists and is a powerful demonstration of innovative vision, technical skill, psychological insight, individuality and lasting influence.

“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.”
- Salvador Dalí
An image of the Brillo Boxes installation by Andy Warhol, featuring three boxes of Brillo soap pads.Brillo Boxes © Andy Warhol 1964

Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box Installation

Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box installation is an example of an intellectual and conceptual flex that, in the tradition of Duchamp, helped to redefine what could be considered art through the development of Pop Art. Akin to Duchamp, Warhol's Brillo Boxes represent a bold innovation, challenging conventional art norms. Warhol's Brillo Boxes replicate the commercial packaging for the product, scaled up, blurring the line between art and commercial design. In doing so, they challenged the idea that art must be separate from everyday consumer objects, a groundbreaking idea at the time.

These Brillo Boxes were screen-printed and assembled in a factory-like process, itself a radical departure from the traditional handcrafted approach to art. This mirrored the mass production process in industrial society and reflected Warhol's interest in consumer culture. Both the subject and process of creating these artworks was controversial, provoking a debate about the value and nature of art.

Warhol was one of the first artists to cultivate his persona as a brand, making his silver-wigged image as iconic as his artworks and his studio – known as The Factory and a hub for celebrities and creative individuals. Given his provocative persona was as significant a medium as any other for Warhol, his skill in marketing himself and his art represented a new and subversive form of technical brilliance, a true art world flex.

“Art is anything you can get away with.”
- Andy Warhol
A photograph of artist Keith Haring standing in front of his mural on the Berlin Wall. The mural shows several connected figures in red and black, against a yellow background.Berlin Wall © Keith Haring 1986

Keith Haring’s mural on the Berlin Wall

Keith Haring's Berlin Wall mural was painted in 1986, showcasing his distinctive style, social activism and ability to communicate through universally understood imagery. By selecting such a public and contentious venue, Haring was expanding his ideal of “art for all” and disseminating his positive social messages on a world stage.

Today, Haring's signature style, characterised by bold lines, vivid colours and kinetic figures is instantly recognisable. By painting in this style on the Berlin Wall – a symbol of division and oppression – Haring brought a playful and energetic aesthetic to a grim and austere structure. This was more than just a piece of art; it was a political statement. The interlocking figures, painted in bright red and black against a yellow background, represented unity and solidarity against the division symbolised by the Wall. With this work, Haring flexed his ability to use art as a form of protest.

Haring completed the 300-metre long mural in just 24 hours, showcasing his physical endurance and speed as an artist and adding another layer on which the work impressively demonstrated his skill. Keith Haring's mural on the Berlin Wall is the ultimate flex of his unique style, commitment to public art, political activism, communicative power and physical endurance.

“It’s for the people and it doesn’t matter which side of the wall they’re on. It’s about both sides coming together.”
- Keith Haring

Banksy’s Love Is In The Bin

The most recent and memorable art flex took place in 2018, when Banksy’s Girl With Balloon self-destructed during a Sotheby's auction. A quintessentially example of Banksy’s rebelliousness, the astonishing moment in which the artwork began to self-destruct on hammer, was a deliberate subversion of the commercial art market, one of the artist’s most regular targets for critique. By creating a piece that destroyed itself just after being sold for over a million pounds, Banksy flexed his disdain for the art market’s commodification of creativity. However, this wasn’t just about the physical artwork—it was also a performance that played out in front of a shocked auction room and quickly became a viral news story. Moreover, the self-destruction was achieved through a shredder hidden within the frame of the artwork, which was activated as soon as the piece was sold; this unusual and dramatic method of destruction required significant technical ingenuity, showcasing Banksy's innovative approach. Overall, as a piece of performance art or theatre, his ability to create a powerful spectacle is a huge flex of his understanding of what makes waves in the contemporary art world.

Banksy’s act of shredding his own artwork can also be seen as a form of iconoclasm, a long-standing tradition in art history where existing artworks are defaced or destroyed to make a political point. In this case, Banksy himself was challenging the idea that art should be bought and sold as a status symbol. Ironically, the half-shredded Girl With Balloon (later renamed Love Is In The Bin) is now considered an iconic piece of art history and massively increased in value due to its unique story – selling for £18,582,000 in 2021. Banksy's ability to manipulate the art market even while critiquing it is, without question, a show of artistic and reputational might.

Artists showcasing their talents showcase the best of human abilities in a myriad of ways. From Michelangelo's technical prowess and innovation in the Sistine Chapel to Duchamp's intellectual boldness and conceptual revolution with Fountain, artists show us what's possible when creative potential is pushed to its limits.

These artists, each in their own unique way, have flexed their talents to create works that challenge expectations, provoke thought and push the boundaries of what we consider possible. Their achievements serve as a testament to the incredible potential of human creativity, innovation and resilience. They remind us that art is not just about creating beautiful objects but also about exploring new ideas, challenging norms and expressing our shared humanity in all its complexity and diversity.

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