Two people, one artist: The SCHIRN is dedicating an extensive retrospective to the visually powerful universe of the celebrated duo.

For more than half a century, Gilbert & George have been creating art together. The topicality and significance of their outstanding oeuvre remains undiminished to this day. To honor the visually striking and at times rather provocative universe of these celebrated artists, the Schirn is dedicating the comprehensive retrospective GILBERT & GEORGE: THE GREAT EXHIBITION to which the artists have selected around 45 of their large-format pictures created between 1972 and 2019.

Two people, one artist: since their first encounter in 1967 as fellow students at London’s Saint Martin’s School of Art, Gilbert & George have relentlessly challenged the artistic canon and conventions. Simultaneously subject and object of their art, they form a perfect artistic entity with no distinction between art and life. As Living Sculpture, they embody their art and are both subject and object of their large-format pictorial worlds. Their art does not adhere to any aesthetic, formalistic, or conceptual intention—what counts is the content.

Their art challenges our view of the world

Gilbert & George focus on the big existential questions. Their art revolves around death, hope, life, fear, sex, money, race, and religion. They also present social themes in their contrariness: at once joyful and tragic, grotesque and serious, surreal and symbolic. Gilbert & George engage with what is unsettling, and yet their aim is not to shock, but rather to make visible what is going on in the world, in keeping with their motto “Art for All”. Punks and hipsters, authorities and outsiders, headlines and advertising—Gilbert & George tend to interfere everywhere. Their art challenges our view of the world, and in doing so, consistently proves to be groundbreaking.

Gilbert & George, 2015, Photo: Tom Oldham

As young sculptors in the late 1960s, Gilbert & George established their artistic vision as “Living Sculpture”. In near-perfectly coordinated, immaculate suits, the two are an indivisible unit unconditionally devoted to a shared life for art, living their daily lives in a manner that is as creative as it is rigorously regimented. With this self-imposed discipline, a life that takes place almost exclusively between home and studio, following simple, classless routines, they have created a space for absolute creative informality. Gilbert & George initially became known for their “Singing Sculptures”, where, with brightly colored faces, they sang the song “Underneath the Arches” (1932) about homelessness during the Great Depression.

Gilbert & George have lived and created art in the London neighborhood of Spitalfields for more than five decades, and have witnessed and visualized its transformation. Their home and studio on Fournier Street have been the center of their art since they moved there in 1968. Central themes of their early art are drinking and drunkenness. After initially focusing primarily on private motifs, they turned their attention entirely to the city in the “DIRTY WORDS PICTURES” (1977), with images such as “QUEER” and “BENT SHIT CUNT”. Their art from the late 1970s portrays a dilapidated London in social turmoil. Pictures such as “GUARD PLANTS” (1980) and “TWO PATRIOTS” (1980) are the first to feature other people.

Gilbert & George, QUEER, 1977, Courtesy of Gilbert & George

In the 1980s, the black and white of their early pictures was joined by red, and then gradually by other colors, which became a key symbolic and atmospheric component of Gilbert & George’s art. Their images grew larger and bolder. Symbol-laden motifs in garish colors challenged established norms of sex, religion, and relationships. These include the 1982 Pictures (1982/83), a group of pictograms of which, among others, “SPERM EATERS” and “TONGUE FUCK” are on display at the Schirn, along with the “NEW DEMOCRATIC PICTURES” (1991/92).

Symbol-laden motifs challenge established norms

In the mid-1990s, in response to the AIDS crisis, Gilbert & George began to place their naked bodies and bodily fluids such as blood, urine, semen, and excrement at the focus of their art. They saw this as the most direct expression of themselves and of human mortality. In addition to the “RUDIMENTARY PICTURES” (1998), the exhibition also includes the pictures from the “NAKED SHIT PICTURES” (1994). Gilbert & George unashamedly expose their naked bodies. Their nakedness contrasts starkly with the suits the artists are known to always wear.

Gilbert & George, SPERM EATERS, 1982, Courtesy of Gilbert & George und White Cube

Religion and politics are recurring key themes in their art, such as in “AKIMBO”, from the “SONOFAGOD PICTURES” (2005), which brings together various symbols of faith. A little later, Gilbert & George dedicated one of their most extensive “JACK FREAK PICTURES” (2008), to nationalism, combining the Union Jack as a basic element.

Gilbert & George focus on blind spots in society

Gilbert & George’s art reflects the ever-changing life of the world in all its forms. On their daily walks through the city, the artists collected thousands of newspaper headlines, advertisements, stickers, signs, logos, and slogans—items left behind by people that serve as an expression of their living conditions. These urban found objects are the basis for groups of pictures such as “LONDON PICTURES” (2011), “SCAPEGOATING PICTURES” (2013), and “UTOPIAN PICTURES” (2014). Among the pictures from these groups on show at the Schirn are the monumental 20-meter-wide triptych “SCAPEGOATING”, and “THEY SHOT THEM!” Here, too, Gilbert & George once again focus on blind spots in society and question social taboos and moralism.

Gilbert & George, JESUS JACK, 2008, Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London. Paris. Salzburg
Gilbert & George, THEY SHOT THEM!, 2014, Courtesy of Gilbert & George


Spring 2021

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