G ilbert and George are an artist double-act whose career together spans more than 50 years. Initially, their work showed the influence of Pop and Performance art, but they’ve gone on to embrace a wide variety of media and tackle a range of themes – from mortality to sexuality. More often than not, their work includes an element of self-portraiture.
The pair are renowned for never being seen apart; their matching tweed suits; and a strict routine, starting with breakfast at 6.30AM each day. It’s sometimes said that their greatest art work is themselves. Ever provocative, Gilbert and George have been widely cited as an influence on the Young British Artists (YBAs), among other figures.
1. The pair were born a year apart: George (Passmore) in the English county of Devon in 1942, Gilbert (Proesch) in a village in the Italian Dolomites in 1943. They met in the mid-1960s, as students at St Martin’s School of Art in London, and were soon collaborating on assignments. Even then their work divided opinion. One of their tutors, the sculptor Anthony Caro, told them on graduation day "I hope very much that you won't succeed – but I rather think you might".
2. Their big breakthrough came in 1969 with a performance piece called The Singing Sculpture. For this, the pair covered their faces in bronze-coloured paint, stood on a small table, and sang the classic, music-hall number, Underneath the Arches. The piece lasted from anywhere between six minutes and eight hours – soon becoming such a hit that Gilbert and George were invited to perform it across the world.
3. In time, the pair moved away from performance into drawing, video and, above all, photography. They created something of a trademark out of photographic grids, in which separate shots were combined in a single art work. Important series made in this manner include Cherry Blossom (1974), Bloody Life (1975), Bad Thoughts (1975) and Red Morning (1977).
They all share a grainy, black-and-white tonality, with certain panels tinted red. There’s a sense of foreboding to most images from this period – in the case of Bad Thoughts, one sees close-ups of Gilbert and George mixed with photos of eerily empty rooms in their Georgian townhouse in East London.
"I hope very much that you won't succeed – but I rather think you might"
4. The duo have lived in that same house – in the once-gritty, now-gentrified area of Spitalfields – for several decades. Life on the streets outside it has provided subject matter for many of their works over the years, notably the Dirty Words Pictures series. These grids combined photos of graffiti on walls with photos of other sights and citizens across London. Pulling no punches, they captured many of the racial, economic and class tensions in the British capital at that time – the grid format, in this instance, serving to suggest fractures in society.
5. In the 1980s, Gilbert and George’s work grew bigger, bolder and brighter. The restraint of the previous decade was replaced by slick technicolour photomontages that, at times, look like the duo’s attempts at designing elaborate coats of arms for themselves. Humour now started to find its way into their work too. In 1986, Gilbert and George won the Turner Prize, and one of the most-discussed images in the accompanying show (Coming) featured the duo gazing up at a shower of Y-fronts about to fall on them.
6. “We don’t believe in God”, Gilbert once declared. Religion, though, is a theme that has long permeated their work. Elements of Islam, Judaism and especially Christianity have cropped up on a regular basis — a series of work from 1997 was called The New Testamental Pictures, another from 2005 The Sonofagod Pictures. In light of their large size and intense colour combinations, many of the duo’s pieces since the 1980s have been compared to stained glass windows.
7. In the 21st Century, Gilbert and George have had a host of exhibitions at major institutions – including a vast retrospective at Tate Modern in 2007 (which later transferred to the Brooklyn Museum). They also represented the United Kingdom at 2005’s Venice Biennale.
The pair insist, however, that they remain firmly outside the art establishment, citing the facts that they have no artist-friends; they never visit exhibitions other than their own; and their art routinely depicts blood, spit and other bodily excretions. Gilbert and George say their whole career can be summed up in the three words: “art for all”.