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Artists Gilbert & George
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Gilbert & George

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

Movements and Styles: Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Modern Photography, Pop Art, Digital Art

Born: Gilbert: September 17th, 1943 - Dolomites, Italy
           George: January 8th, 1942 - Devon, England

Gilbert & George Timeline

Quotes

"It's not a collaboration. . . We are two people, but one artist."
Gilbert & George
"We would say that we are the weirdest people we know. For many years we said that we were the unhappiest people we knew - and then we actually became unhappy, so we stopped saying it. More recently we stated 'we are the most disturbed people we know."
Gilbert & George
"It was our biggest invention. We had made ourselves the artwork."
Gilbert & George
"We have to seduce audiences with beautiful, crafted artworks and only then can they become slaves to our feelings."
Gilbert & George
"We don't want to be confrontational; we prefer to be subversive."
Gilbert & George
"Our art is the friendship formed between the viewer and the pictures. Each picture speaks of a 'particular view' which the viewer may consider in the light of its own life."
Gilbert & George

"We want our art to bring out the bigot from inside the liberal and conversely bring out the liberal from inside the bigot."

Synopsis

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

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.

Most Important Art

Gilbert & George Famous Art

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.
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Gilbert & George Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Left: George dressed as a mouse in an anti-rationing campaign late 1940s Right: Gilbert in San Martino, Badia, Dolomites, Italy early 1950s
Left: George dressed as a mouse in an anti-rationing campaign late 1940s Right: Gilbert in San Martino, Badia, Dolomites, Italy early 1950s

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 & George with their <i>Object Sculptures</i> on the roof of St Martin's School of Art, London, 1968
Gilbert & George with their Object Sculptures on the roof of St Martin's School of Art, London, 1968

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.

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Gilbert & George Biography Continues

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 Dusseldorf 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."

Mature Period

Gilbert and George photographed by Andy Warhol in 1976.
Gilbert and George photographed by Andy Warhol in 1976.

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.

Late Period

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.

Gilbert and George at their restored home, 2017.
Gilbert and George at their restored home, 2017.

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.


Legacy

Left: David Bowie's album <i>Tonight</i> from 1984. Right: Gilbert & George's <i>Faith Curse</i> from 1982.
Left: David Bowie's album Tonight from 1984. Right: Gilbert & George's Faith Curse from 1982.

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."

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Gilbert & George
Interactive chart with Gilbert & George's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Francis BaconFrancis Bacon
Andy WarholAndy Warhol
William BlakeWilliam Blake
Oscar WildeOscar Wilde

Personal Contacts

Anthony CaroAnthony Caro
Philip King

Movements

Pop ArtPop Art
Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Performance ArtPerformance Art

Influences on Artist
Gilbert & George
Gilbert & George
Years Worked: 1967 - present
Influenced by Artist

Artists

AndrewAndrew
Aziz + Cucher
Damien HirstDamien Hirst
EVA & ADELE

Personal Contacts

Andy WarholAndy Warhol
Andrew Heard
David Robilliard
Joshua Compston

Movements

Performance ArtPerformance Art
Queer Art
Abject Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Vitoria Hadba Groom

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" 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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Useful Resources on Gilbert & George

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Gilbert & George: an intimate conversation with François Jonquet

By François Jonquet

Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985

By Carter Radcliff

What is Gilbert & George

By Michael Bracewell

Gilbert & George: Obsessions and Compulsions

By Robin Dutt

The Secret Files of Gilbert & George

This 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 Surrender Recomended resource

Artists invited Alan Yentob into their East End home for this interview

Gilbert & George: The Early Years: ARTIST PROFILES Recomended resource

The Museum of Modern Art

Gilbert & George in conversation with Tim Marlow

Interview with Royal Academy of Arts' Artistic Director

More Interesting Videos with Gilbert & George

in pop culture

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.

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