Gilbert & George

Summary

Gilbert & George, born Gilbert Prousch (San Martino in Badia, 1943) andGeorge Passmore (Plymouth, 1942) are a contemporary artist duo.

Gilbert first studied in Italy at the Art School of Selva di Val Gardena.

In 1967 Gilbert & George met at St. Martin”s School of Art in London. From 1968 they lived and worked together in London. Anticipators in choosing the unconventional stage for their talent, they move to the workers” district of Spitalfields (which in the seventies was the lower end of the East End of London and today is the meeting place par excellence for artists and intellectuals, starting with their followers such as Tracey Emin or the Chapman Brothers) and immediately oppose elite art: they call their home “Art for All” and call themselves “living sculptures”.

In 1969 the artists were asked to exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and from 1972-73 they collaborated with prestigious galleries, such as Anthony d”Offay in London, the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, and Galerie Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf. In 1990 the artists created the work The Cosmological Pictures, which was presented in ten different European countries between 1991 and 1993. In 1992 they exhibited their most impressive work, New Democratic Pictures, at the Aarhus Art Museum in Denmark. In 2007 the Tate Modern in London hosted them for an enormous retrospective never before dedicated to living artists. A further celebration of their artistic career will be the awarding of the Lorenzo il Magnifico Prize for Lifetime Achievement at the sixth edition of the Florence Biennale Internazionale dell”Arte Contemporanea.

Their work has long since established itself throughout the world, as evidenced by the important exhibition venues that have hosted it and continue to do so: National Art Gallery, The Art Museum in Shanghai, Museo d”Arte Moderna in Lugano, the Documenta exhibition-event in Kassel, Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf, Kunsthalle in Bern, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, MAMbo in Bologna, Florence Biennale.

Art for all: this slogan, used since the beginning of their existential-artistic association, best summarizes the logic behind Gilbert & George”s artistic activity. The main objective of their work is, from the beginning, to produce an art of strong communicative impact, aimed at overcoming the traditional barriers between art and life and to analyze in depth the human condition. They are therefore interested in capturing human experiences of all kinds by investigating the fears, obsessions, and emotions that individuals feel especially when they are confronted with strong themes such as sex, race, religion, and politics. They themselves, with their own experience, are the first to undergo such a meticulous examination, from the point of view that sees the artist and the work of art as coinciding: “Being living sculptures is our lifeblood, our destiny, our adventure, our disaster, our life and our light” declare the two artists, pointing out the problem of the relationship between art and life as the backbone of their poetics.

The setting up of the exhibitions is also a fundamental element of their vision of art: the setting up is, in fact, an integral part of the work and is aimed, on the one hand, at upsetting the space especially from the point of view of dimensions and, on the other, at demolishing the sacredness of the work, bringing it into life, making it a part of life.

Clarifying the global logic underlying their way of understanding art is also the refusal of the artists to sign their works individually and the adoption of the “common signature” Gilbert & George: this does not indicate only a rejection of the distinction of roles, but a profound revision of the concepts of identity and individuality. The choice of the common signature sanctions the universality of an action, that which is at the basis of artistic creation, which rejects individualization and, once again, recalls their motto: “art belongs to everyone”.

The beginnings

From the very beginning, between the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, Gilbert & George loved to provoke and shake up both critics and public opinion, anticipating by far the whole generation of Young British Artists: their first works are mainly performances, in which they often appear with their faces and hands painted in gold, supporting the idea that artists should be personally involved in what they produce. The beginnings also include the large works on paper in which they appear, life-size, in the English countryside immersed in a tranquil and rustic atmosphere, the opposite of that which will be present in their future works. The closing of this first phase of the two artists” activity is marked by the work The General Jungle or Carrying on Sculpting. The work, presented for the first time at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York in the fall of 1971, anticipates a series of themes that will be taken up and reworked in a more articulate and serial way by the two artists in their subsequent phase, centered on photographic work:

The 70s

In the first half of the seventies, the two artists began to work mainly with photography. Even the themes of their observation change: now they turn especially to the contemporary world, to the cities and especially to the great city in which they chose to live, London, with its melting pot of cultures, religions, different realities, with its violence, dissatisfaction and frustration of humanity that populates it.The work that marks the beginning of this new phase is Cherry blossom picture, made in 1974. Bloody life, 1975, shows instead the entry of a new element that will be repeated in subsequent works: the artists themselves appear, alone or with characters of the street, within the photographic images. The words of the artists themselves best explain the spirit that accompanied them in that period:

Another symbol proposed very often in this phase, is that of the crucifixion, often accompanied by provocative images, which as the two artists declare “It is an image of suffering of extraordinary power”, an image symbol of a suffering humanity.

In the same period, alongside these works that reflect on the living conditions and malaise in large contemporary cities, there are more introspective and melancholic works, such as Dusty Corners, with photographs of the bare and desolate interiors of the apartment they bought in abandoned conditions in Fournier Street. This phase, which led to the creation of works such as Red Morning, Mental, Violence and Hate, is finally abandoned at the end of the seventies and especially in the ”80s.

The 80s and 90s

In the eighties, the photographs, real contemporary mosaics by virtue of the construction of juxtaposed panels, take on larger and larger dimensions and chromaticism. A new theme flanks the classic ones of their works: the fear of AIDS. The disease, which in those years affects many of their homosexual friends, is symbolized in various deliberately unsightly images, as something that leads to the total loss of dignity of the individual. Their provocation, in that period, goes as far as the representation of excrement. In works such as Shitted and Naked shit pictures the provocative escalation reaches its peak and the artists state, “Basically, there is something religious about the fact that we are made of excrement.” The nudity of the artists is exposed to indicate a humanity reduced to the essential, to the mere biology of its microscopic parts. Such reflections lead to the series of works that represent all biological fluids under the microscope, from blood to urine, from tears to feces. In a work like Dying Youth, present in the “Terrae motus” collection at the Reggia di Caserta, the themes of faith (specifically the crucifixion) and violence, explored in the 1970s, are linked to those of corporality and nudity: the image of a naked young man juxtaposed with images of death (two faces of mummified children and a skull) turns out to be a memento mori, a representation of the finiteness of existence.

The last years

In the last works it is London that returns to the forefront, especially after the terrorist attacks of 2005: once again the great city is, at the same time, a place where cultures meet and clash, a reservoir of possibilities, but also of frustration, intolerance, anger and death. The Six Bomb Pictures is defined by the artists themselves as “the most chilling work ever made”. Once again, they reiterate the role of art and the artist, declaring that

Sources

  1. Gilbert & George
  2. Gilbert & George