Illustrated companion

Gilbert and George met at St Martin's School of Art in London in 1967 and have worked together in London since 1968. They were among a generation of students at St Martin's who sought a radical alternative to the prevailing ethos of Anthony Caro and New Generation sculpture and their contemporaries included Barry Flanagan, Richard Long and Bruce McLean. Gilbert and George began to perform 'actions', which they always referred to as sculptures, in 1969 and became widely known for the very first of these, 'The Singing Sculpture'. As for all action artists the ephemerality of their work was a problem, but with great success they adapted themselves to the medium of photography. Since 1971 they have produced a large body of 'photo-pieces' to ever widening international acclaim.

Gilbert and George have dealt with a variety of themes in their work, the most consistent being the social and spiritual situation of contemporary urban man. Since about 1980 their imagery has become increasingly complex and the scale of their work has grown. 'Death Life Hope Fear' is one of a group of large complex allegories of fundamental aspects of the human condition made in the early 1980s. It is a four part polyptych (or tetraptych). Some of the symbolism has been elucidated by the critic Wolf Jahn in his 1989 monograph The Art of Gilbert and George. In 'Death' the gold ground is equated with flame and therefore burning and obliteration. Images of the artists themselves simultaneously rise towards engulfing mouths and descend towards a black opening at the heart of a rose. Each image of the artists is interleaved with a rose behind and a daisy in front. The yellow petals of the daisy tipped with red create an image of consuming fire. The artists are richly dressed in funereal purple. In 'Life' the ground is silver symbolising life and growth. Also emblematic of growth and the renewal of life are the leaves, also suggesting wings, behind the artists who are now actively shouting or singing where in 'Death' they were silent. They are also making signs with their arms whereas in 'Death' they are standing rigidly, arms by their sides. The flame colours are now transferred to their suits creating a pulse of life. Similar contrasts or polarities are set up in 'Fear' and 'Hope' where the artists now appear only as tiny witnesses or observers. The protagonists, as in many of their works of the 1980s, are East End youths who have taken on in Gilbert and George's work something of the role of the ideal male image in Classical and Renaissance art.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.271