Gilbert & George - Biography and Legacy
British Sculptors, Photographers, Digital, Performance, and Conceptual Artists
George: January 8th, 1942 - Devon, England
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.
Early Training and Work
Gilbert first studied at Wolkenstein Art School in the Swiss Alps, then he moved to Hallein near Salzburg in Austria. After that, he studied for six years at the Munich Academy of Art before settling in London and enrolling at St Martin's School of Art.
George moved to London in the early 1960s and worked in various low-paid jobs including Selfridges department store, in a bar, and as a baby sitter. He enrolled at Oxford Technical College before going onto St Martin's in London. There are rumors that before moving in with Gilbert, George had a wife and family. The artist never confirmed nor denied the rumors, which remain a mystery.
The two met at St Martin's in 1967, while studying sculpture. As noted many times by the couple "it was love at first sight." Coincidentally, the year they met was also when the UK decriminalized homosexuality. They quickly became romantically and artistically involved. At the time, the London school had a great reputation with a number of students (and teachers) who either were well-known or about to become so. Richard Long and Barry Flanagan were amongst their fellow students.
From the beginning, their experience of art school propelled Gilbert & George to react 'against the orthodoxy of their times'. As curator Margarida Vieira notes, "their early reaction to the teaching system was to address art's close relation to life." As young artists, they did not have the financial means to rent a studio and buy expensive art supplies. Proving that necessity is the mother of all invention, they decide to be their own art, creating the so-called 'Living Sculptures' from their own bodies.
Their first few years after graduating were not easy. It was a herculean task to convince gallery owners to give them a show when all they had to present was a 'life box' filled with memorabilia and themselves as sculptures. This lack of interest meant they often presented their work in unusual spaces such as sandwich shops and factories. Conversely things started to look up after they were turned down by an international art show. They decided to go to that art show opening as living sculptures - wearing metallic heads and standing between the guests. There, an important German dealer spotted them and finally gave them a show. Their first sale happened after a potential buyer saw a large charcoal drawing at their Düsseldorf exhibition. Jokingly, they charged £1000 - the highest sum they could think of. The work was sold with no questions asked and they professed to be "totally amazed."
By 1975, the pair were accomplished enough to purchase their house in Spitalfield, a neighborhood in East London. This run-down area is now gentrified and filled with young hip creative professionals. And major artists such as Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread currently live in the area. Gilbert and George restored their 18th century townhouse by themselves, which took them more than three years and they often state that it was the hardest work they have ever done. They still live in the same house together with a huge collection of antiques, children's books, pottery, and furniture. The pair believe that cooking is counter-productive (too much to clean) and for this reason their house doesn't have a kitchen.
For the couple, with success came excessive drinking. They admitted, on many occasions, how much they enjoyed the freedom attached to being drunk. At this point in their career, alcohol intoxication became a recurrent theme in their work. The video Gordon's Makes us Drunk (1972) is among these works, and celebrates their love for gin. During these turbulent years, they became increasingly destructive, even getting into pub fights and as a result they no longer drink alcohol.
In 1980 after a year without working on anything new - they were too busy preparing for their first retrospective - their work was reborn. After expanding their color palette, they started focusing solely on photography and not on their performance-based 'live sculptures.' In 1986, they won the renowned Turner Prize.
Gilbert & George's work became increasingly scatological in the 1990s. The NAKED SHIT PICTURES in the mid 1990s, with their images of turds were confrontational and deliberately set out to offend but as the pair explained, 'Fundamentally, there's something religious about the fact that we're made of shit. We consist of the stuff. It's our nourishment, it belongs to us, we're part of it, and we show this in a positive light'. In its focus on mortality, some critics admired this work for its ability to strip humanity back to its rawest form.
With the turn of the millennium, the pair embraced computer technology - all of the work done since then is totally digital. In 2008, they were legally married so their rights and assets would be protected, even though they are against such formalities. The same year, they had a major retrospective at Tate Modern. The exhibition was supposed to happen at Tate Britain, the older and British artist focused of the two galleries. However, the artists argued with then Tate director, Nicholas Serota, saying that limiting all British artists to Tate Britain was discriminatory. Gilbert & George won that argument and the retrospective took place at Tate Modern. Still, triggered by their damaged relationship with the British institution, they purchased an old brewery close to their house to serve as a non-profit to house all their work. The plan, as they revealed in an architectural model, is for a 6,000 square foot building due to open in approximately two years' time.
In the recent years, Gilbert & George have been involved in a number of controversies because of their conservative political views. The couple has said they admire the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher because she believed, as they do, in making money and hard graft. Their latest series mocked beards, yet it was unclear whether this was intended to be an anti-fundamentalist gesture or simply the artists mocking the hipster trend of sporting a beard. On January 2018, their exhibition in Belfast in Northern Ireland was received with protests. Their SCAPEGOATING PICTURES contained statements such as "fuck the vicar," "Rape a Rabbi," and "Molest a Mullah." Religious groups requesting the closure of the exhibition called the police several times. There was a similar controversy surrounding their show when it opened in Belfast almost a decade earlier.
Currently, both artists still live the same monastic life of the 1960s - with a small circle of friends, wearing the same tweed suits, avoiding art openings, and eating at the same Kurdish restaurant every day. As they themselves have often commented, such a routine based, ascetic lifestyle is what keeps their work pure, unpolluted.
The Legacy of Gilbert & George
Nowadays fondly, and perhaps patronizingly, referred to as National Treasures, Gilbert & George's significance as artists lies mainly in what they stand for rather than in any perceived beauty in their artworks. However, this is not to say that the bold qualities of their graphic and colorful works from the 1980s weren't extremely influential - not only to visual artists but to graphic designers - as the cover of David Bowie's 1984 album Tonight attests.
There is also no denying that Gilbert and George are important figures in British Conceptual art - a movement that first took shape in the late 1960s, when the pair were still at art school in London. Like other conceptual artists, they use whatever materials and whatever form is most appropriate to putting their idea across. Right from the start they worked with ideas derived from their own personal and political stance, whether this was an attack on religion or an affirmation of their homosexuality. In this respect they paved the way for the Young British Artists, the generation that came to prominence in the late 1990s. Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst in particular considered anything 'fair game' when it came to subject matter and used extreme methods and unlikely materials to get their point across. Like Gilbert and George, the ideas based art that the YBAs produced struck a fine balance between aggression and humor.
In almost always featuring in their own work, Gilbert and George invigorated the genre of the self-portrait. Prior to placing themselves at the center of their art, there were few, if any, representations of gay men in contemporary art. Sex between two men (or sex between two women for that matter) was not considered a fitting subject for depiction in art. Gilbert and George rewrote the rulebook by creating a huge body of work that not only often featured both their naked likenesses but also used slogans like 'riot homos' and even images of ejaculation to foreground their sexuality. This full-front assault - and repeated insertion of themselves over and over into their art - has helped to normalize homosexuality and open the door for much of the queer art being made today.
Gilbert & George's long-lasting partnership of 50 years serves as inspiration for artists' duos such as Elmgreen & Dragset, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, EVA & ADELE, and Aziz + Cucher. Both EVA & ADELE and Aziz + Cucher are also queer couples, and with Gilbert & George as their role models proved that non-gender binary couples, working together can achieve great success. Although often attacked for their lack of participation in queer rights movements, Gilbert & George were instrumental in presenting depictions of homosexuality in contemporary art. As argued by the genderqueer writer Zachary Small, they "weren't depicting homosexuality as salacious but as ordinary - one aspect of the duo's work is its pinpointed restraint and poignantly dry British humor."