Gilbert & George
British Sculptors, Photographers, Digital, Performance, and Conceptual Artists
George: January 8th, 1942 - Devon, England
Summary of Gilbert & George
As one in life and art for 50 years, Gilbert & George make work that is often huge, extremely brash and noisy - it literally screams for your attention. They tackle tough subjects such as death, religion, power, the monarchy, patriotism, identity and sexuality, often combining these into one dazzling composite image. Chuck in a few swear words (and possibly a bodily fluid or two) and you have the essence of Gilbert & George.
Nowadays an elderly gay couple in their Seventies, Gilbert & George can often be seen in formal suits strolling around Spitalfields, the area of East London that they have made their home. This is not to say the artist duo has settled down for a quiet life. Happy to be known as confrontational, Gilbert & George continue to make work that defies the norm, often delighting in the response to their controversial images and provocative slogans.
- Critical to the understanding of Gilbert & George is the fact that these two individuals function as one artist. The two men began working together at art school in 1967- and have lived and worked together in a carefully restored house in East London ever since. Mostly identically dressed in formal tweed suits, Gilbert and George's genteel, ordered appearance and ascetic lifestyle is curiously at odds with their riotous and often garish works of art.
- Gilbert & George are iconoclasts, attacking the beliefs that art holds most dear. They believe that art and life should be brought closer together and their 'living sculptures' were one early way of bridging this gap. Living and working together as an artist duo was a further way of creating this necessary merger - art becomes life and life becomes art. Their democratic approach encompasses the idea that it doesn't matter what your background is or where you come from, art is for all.
- Their art is deliberately controversial and designed to offend as they believe that good taste is the scourge of modern life. While they are unafraid to tackle difficult subjects head on, they are sometimes reluctant to be pinned down about their own opinions and have made some conflicting statements about their views over the years. One consistent idea running through their work is the need to strive towards a world that is free from dogmatic religion and political correctness.
- They employ shock tactics in order to get their message across. Swear words, scatological references and bodily fluids - all previously not considered to be part of art's lexicon - have been employed by Gilbert and George to calculating effect.
- Their color is bold and at times eye-wateringly bright. Often when building digital compositions they use hallucinogenic colors in lurid combinations. Their whole aesthetic is a deliberate anti-aesthetic, designed to grab and goad the viewer in equal measure. In recent times they have made repeated use of large-scale, bold graphic style photo-based imagery, constructed through a digitally manipulated process.
- As a gay couple who document themselves in their art, theirs is a celebration of otherness with early works showing them eating breakfast and getting drunk at home on gin. These early works have a gentler, poetic quality in keeping with the image they have cultivated of themselves as aesthetes and lovers of history.
- The fact that they live in London is crucial to the appreciation of Gilbert & George's art. From early works in the 1970s that feature images of angry crowds and homelessness to later works that reveal a London divided along religious lines, they have used their art to chronicle Britain's capital city for over five decades.
Biography of Gilbert & George
Both men came from relatively modest backgrounds. Gilbert was born Gilbert Prousch in 1943, in the Dolomites - the Alpine region of northeastern Italy. He came from a family of shoemakers and his first artistic endeavors were in traditional Alpine wood carving. George was born George Passmore in 1942, in Plymouth, moving early on to a small town in Devon, England. George was raised by a single mother who worked as a waitress, and gave him elocution lessons. George's childhood was similar to his partner's, he remembers living without heat, bathroom or hot water. Often the school lunch would be his only real meal of the day. His family was quite religious, which led his older brother to become a vicar. By age 15, George had quit school. He was, however, already studying art at the renowned Dartington Hall School, while also working at a bookshop.
Important Art by Gilbert & George
George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit is a double color portrait of the artists dressed smartly in suits with ties and flowers in their lapels. George on the left hand side is smoking a cigarette. Both are smiling for the camera - the sort of cheesy smile that you might make for a photographer at a wedding. Yet, disrupting any sense of propriety, cut-out letters announcing George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit are emblazoned across their chests.
This is a pivotal work in the artists' career. It was at this point, the duo decided that there would be no separation between themselves and their art. Aware that what they were proposing was quite bold, they decided to anticipate any potential criticism by labeling themselves pejoratively. Here the terms cunt and shit are not just designed to offend but show that the pair refused to be dependent on the art industry's opinion, arguably the work's main legacy.
The artists whose background was in sculpture, classified most of their early work including George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit as magazine sculptures. These were works published in newspapers, magazines, and occasionally as postcards. This work was shown in an invitation-only pop-up event at Robert Fraser Gallery in May 1969 before becoming a magazine spread. As revealed by the duo, the magazine version, published in the journal Studio International, was in black and white against their wishes. At the time, fine art photography was almost always black and white and color photographs were considered tacky. The words cunt and shit were also censored and appeared covered.
The idea for living sculptures - the artists creating their art using their own bodies - first started when they were students. Gilbert & George performed Singing Sculpture over a number of years and was their first success. For this performance they painted themselves in bronze and dressed in suits to sing and dance to a 1930s song titled Underneath the Arches. In the original song, performed by popular vaudeville artists Flanagan and Allen, two men discover some pleasure in the fact they have no homes to go to and have to sleep outside in the open air. Gilbert & George's version saw the artists dancing robotically like puppets.
In this work the duo furthered their aim of breaking down the distinction between life and art by making a link to prewar Britain, a time when there was a lot of poverty and many people were marginalized within society. It also managed to engage a wider public through a popular song. In identifying with the lyrics of Underneath the Arches and with tramps who live underneath the arches rather than in fancy hotels, Gilbert commented "that song was about our existence. The words described what we were like (...) we didn't have anything."
Performed many times all over the world between 1969 and 1991this Singing Sculpture normally lasted six minutes, however in a few versions, it became an endurance piece and lasted for eight hours or more.
The work was important for rejecting the idea of 'a formalistic art based on shapes and colors' at a time when the artists were experimenting with new media as well as ways of avoiding the commodification and fetishization of the art object.
The Tuileries installation consists of life-size charcoal drawings of trees lining the walls of a living room, with the same imagery plastered all over the furniture as well. The size of the room is based on the living room of the gallerists that first commissioned the piece. The furniture is based on pieces from the artists' home - the two chairs can also be seen in their early video Gordon's Makes us Drunk (1972). Although the pair used the term sculpture to categorize all their oeuvre, this installation is one of their few works that actually features three-dimensional sculptures.
The overall effect of this installation is of a secluded wooded copse. This is significant because the duo is deliberately referring to the homosexual practice of cottaging - gay men having casual sex in woods. The Tuileries was a well-known hang-out for the Parisian homosexual community in the early 1970s. In one of the three large backdrop-like drawings, there is a life-size self-portrait of the couple strolling at the park. By inserting themselves in such a setting, Gilbert & George proudly declare their homosexuality. Yet, as art critic Blake Gopnik noted, these charcoal drawings are melancholic. and this "sadness has an important social dimension: It's how it felt to be a gay couple in 1960s in Britain."
Additionally, the domestic scale of the furniture together with the surrounding drawings, make The Tuileries an immersive experience, one in which the viewer experiences the park with the artists. Creating inclusive and accessible works of art is one of Gilbert & George's main concerns, and although a somewhat utopian idea, their proposed 'Art for All,' was at the time revolutionary. Regardless of your background, your race, or your sexual orientation - the duo invited you to take a stroll in The Tuileries.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Gilbert & George
- Gilbert & George: an intimate conversation with François JonquetBy François Jonquet
- Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985By Carter Radcliff
- What is Gilbert & GeorgeBy Michael Bracewell
- Gilbert & George: Obsessions and CompulsionsBy Robin Dutt
- 'We say what we want' ... Gilbert and George look back on 50 years of filth, fury and in-your-face artBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / November 15th, 2017
- Gilbert & George: What exactly do we remember them for?By Michael Glover / Independent / November 14th, 2017
- At home with Gilbert & George: 'It has to be immaculate in order for us to make all these unpleasant pictures'By Edward Paginton / The Guardian / May 19th, 2015
- Gilbert and George: 'Everyone said we wouldn't last'By John Preston / The Telegraph / July 7th, 2014
- Master of Modern Sculpture Part 2Trailer. Directed by Michael Blackwood
- The Secret Files of Gilbert & GeorgeThis 35-minute film produced, hosted and edited by the international curator Hans Ulrich Obrist is the first documentary to follow Gilbert & George inside their creative process, and into their archives and collection.
- BBC Imagine... Gilbert & George – No SurrenderArtists invited Alan Yentob into their East End home for this interview
- Gilbert & George: The Early Years: ARTIST PROFILESThe Museum of Modern Art
- Gilbert & George in conversation with Tim MarlowInterview with Royal Academy of Arts' Artistic Director
- Gilbert & George In Conversation With Olivier VarenneMuseum of Old and New Art
- In 2017, an opera about their life and work, titled The Naked Shit Songs premiered in Amsterdam. The opera was created by the Dutch composer Huba de Graaff.Link to the video compilation of The Naked Shit Songs, which is an Opera based on the interview of Theo van Gogh with Gilbert and George in 1996.