Gilbert and George, Pelham Place, London, 1974 by Cecil Beaton
Image: ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Created in 1974 Dark Shadow No. 3 is a commanding multipaneled work from an important moment in Gilbert & George’s career. Towering over two meters in height, the present work combines mysterious black and white photographs of the artists taken from different angles in a window-frame like grid of rectangular and square framed images. Shown standing by doors and furtively looking out of windows, the artists are enclosed by shadowy, almost abstract, views of door panels and window shutters, all of which were taken at the artist’s studio/home on 12 Fournier street in east London. The series consists of 9 works in total, all similar in scale and gridded in composition, in which images of each artist, depicted alone and tentatively gazing, are joined by dizzying noir views of empty domestic spaces. These works present us both with a sense of claustrophobia and empty isolation. Amidst vertiginous vantage points of vacant corners illuminated by sombre lighting, the solitary images of Gilbert & George exude disquiet. Taken as a whole, these ‘photo-sculptures’ hint at a menace and danger lurking beyond walls that are at once protective yet suffocating and lonely: a feeling to which we can all, perhaps, relate owing to months of COVID lockdown.

Gilbert & George have always used their home and studio on Fournier Street as one of their primary subjects and motifs. It features heavily across the Dark Shadow series, in which eerie photographs of empty spaces give away the house’s eighteenth-century features – indeed, since 1968 when the artists first moved in, 12 Fournier street has undergone a gradual process of faithful restoration and in 1974 it had been stripped bare, thus prompting the series of composite images to which the present work belongs. These pictures explore a sense of bleakness and loneliness - an impetus prompted by the empty, dusty house mid-renovation.

Jorge Lewinski, Gilbert and George, The Singing Sculpture, 1970
Private Collection
Image:© The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth / Bridgeman Images
Artwork: © Jorge Lewinski DACS 2021

For Gilbert & George their Fournier street house provides a sanctuary within a part of London which they have always felt sits closer to the bone of real life; an urban environment where violence, sex, crime, and money are concentrated into a single location. During the 1970s, this London locale was one of the city’s socio-economic contradictions: a wholly dilapidated area of semi-derelict industrial buildings coexisted alongside the City of London, the capital’s historic financial centre. With Dark Shadow No. 3, in which we are invited into the privacy of Gilbert & George’s domestic environment, it is as though the artists take sanctuary in their own home to escape the city and its hostile imbalance. Alone and surrounded by vacant and featureless interior spaces, the solitary images of each artist exude a sense of melancholy and estrangement that articulates the alienation of contemporary city life. Indeed, it was not until the landmark Dirty Words Pictures of the late 1970s that Gilbert & George began to venture outside the walls of their home and incorporate the grit and reality of urban London into the fabric of their work.

Born only a year apart, Gilbert & George have been an artistic double-act for over 50 years, having first met at Central St Martins in the mid-1960s where they studied under Antony Caro. Their breakthrough work came in 1969 with The Singing Sculpture, a performance piece for which the artists, dressed in matching tweed suits with faces painted metallic bronze, stood on a small table and sang the old music-hall number, ‘Underneath the Arches’. Lasting anywhere between six minutes and eight hours, this piece launched their careers on the international stage. Over the coming months and years the pairing moved from performance into drawing, video, and principally photography which would soon become the most significant outlet for their art. Indeed, created in 1974, the present work marks an evolution in the artist-duo’s use of the multipart photographic grid for which their work is today associated. Invoking a window-like view onto their world whilst offering a tribute to the Minimalist grid propounded in the work of Carl Andre and Donald Judd, this structure would hereon-in become their signature and the exclusive format for all the monumental works that would follow. "The grids are a natural part of making large photo-pieces”, George has described: “It is like a week has to be divided into day, for convenience. A house has to be made of bricks. You can’t make a house from one big brick. You cannot make a skyscraper with one enormous sheet of glass. Everything is in sections” (George cited in: Gilbert & George, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, London 1997, p. 153). Ushering in a period that would bring forth the artists’ most significant works to date – a body of work that includes the Cherry Blossom, Bad Thoughts and Dirty Words PicturesDark Shadow No. 3 is a consummate work that reveals Gilbert & George at their most poetic and foreboding.