Gilbert & George are two artists who work together as a collaborative duo. Gilbert Proesch (San Martin de Tor, Italy, 17 September 1943) and George Passmore (Plymouth, United Kingdom, 8 January 1942) have become famous for their distinctive, highly formal appearance and manner and their brightly coloured graphic-style photo-based artworks.
Gilbert Proesch was born in San Martin de Tor in Italy, his mother tongue being Ladin rather than Italian. He studied art at the Wolkenstein School of Art and Hallein School of Art in Austria and the Akademie der Kunst, Munich, before moving to England. George Passmore was born in Plymouth in the United Kingdom, to a single mother in a poor household. He studied art at the Dartington College of Arts and the Oxford School of Art, then part of the Oxford College of Technology, which eventually became Oxford Brookes University.
The two first met on 25 September 1967 while studying sculpture at St Martins School of Art, now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, one of six colleges in the University of the Arts, London. The two claim they came together because George was the only person who could understand Gilbert’s rather poorly spoken English. In a 2002 interview with Daily Telegraph they said of their meeting: “it was love at first sight”. They have claimed that they married in 2008.
For many years, Gilbert & George have been residents of Fournier Street, Spitalfields, East London. Their entire body of work has been created in, and focused on, London’s East End, which they see as a microcosm. According to George, “Nothing happens in the world that doesn’t happen in the East End”.
Whilst still students Gilbert & George made The Singing Sculpture, which was first performed at Nigel Greenwood Gallery in 1970. For this performance they covered their heads and hands in multi-coloured metalised powders, stood on a table, and sang along and moved to a recording of Flanagan and Allen’s song “Underneath the Arches”, sometimes for a day at a time. The suits they wore for this became a sort of uniform for them. They rarely appear in public without wearing them. It is also unusual for one of the pair to be seen without the other. The pair regard themselves as “living sculptures”. They refuse to disassociate their art from their everyday lives, insisting that everything they do is art.
The pair are perhaps best known for their large scale photo works, known as The Pictures. The early work in this style is in black and white, later with hand-painted red and yellow touches. They proceeded to use a range of bolder colours, sometimes backlit, and overlaid with black grids. The artists themselves frequently feature in these works, along with flowers, youths, friends, and Christian symbolism.
In 1986 Gilbert and George were criticized for a series of pictures seemingly glamourizing ‘rough types’ of London’s East End such as skinheads, while a picture of an Asian man bore the title “Paki”. Some of their work has attracted media attention because of the inclusion of (potentially) shocking imagery, such as nudity, depictions of sexual acts, and bodily fluids (faeces, urine and semen). The titles of these works, such as “Naked Shit Pictures” (1994) and “Sonofagod Pictures” (2005), also contributed to the attention.
In May 2007, Gilbert and George were the subject of the BBC documentary Imagine, presented by Alan Yentob. At the end of the programe a picture entitled ‘Planed’ was made available as a free file download from the BBC and The Guardian websites for 48 hours. People who downloaded the files could then print and assemble the piece, and thus own an original Gilbert and George picture for free.
In 2000 they moved galleries to be represented by White Cube and since 2009 by ARNDT in Berlin.
Jack Freak Pictures is, to date, the largest series of work created by Gilbert & George. According to Michael Bracewell “the Jack Freak Pictures are among the most iconic, philosophically astute and visually violent works that Gilbert & George have ever created.” The Union Jack and Gilbert & George are the two dominant pictorial images – appearing contorted, abstracted, and sometimes complete. The entire series is set in the East End of London indicated by flags, maps, street signs, graffiti and other less obvious motifs such as brickwork and foliage that can be found there.
After showing at White Cube’s Hoxton and Mason Yard galleries the exhibition travelled to the Croatian Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb; The Kröller-Müller Museum, Amsterdam; Centro de Arte Contemporaneo de Malaga, Spain; Arndt & Partner gallery, Berlin; the Baronian Francey Gallery, Brussels; and the Bozar Center for Fine Arts, Brussels.