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Gilbert & George

British Sculptors, Photographers, Digital, Performance, and Conceptual Artists

Gilbert & George Photo
Born: Gilbert: September 17th, 1943 - Dolomites, Italy
           George: January 8th, 1942 - Devon, England
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We want our art to bring out the bigot from inside the liberal and conversely bring out the liberal from inside the bigot.
Gilbert and George

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.

Key Ideas

Biography of Gilbert & George

Gilbert & George Photo

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 (1969)

George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit (1969)

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.

Singing Sculpture (1969)

Singing Sculpture (1969)

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 (1974)

The Tuileries (1974)

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

Influences on Artist
Gilbert & George
Influenced by Artist
Open Influences
Gilbert & George
Influenced by Artist
Artists
Friends
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Gilbert & George

Books

Content compiled and written by Vitoria Hadba Groom

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Gilbert & George Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Vitoria Hadba Groom
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 08 Apr 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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