England is a large, wall work consisting of thirty photographic panels mounted in abutting narrow black metal frames. The artists took photographs of a wild English rose and its leaves and coloured the photographs red and green respectively. The photograph of the rose, spread across two red panels, is central to the work. A cluster of three leaves is spread across four green panels above and below the rose. Black and white photographs of the artists standing in confrontational poses, their feet wide apart and their hands balled into fists, fill six panels on either side of the rose. They are making ‘a physical salute’ to England, one which involves ‘all the physique, not just an arm’ (quoted in The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, p.99). Gilbert and George photographed each other against a white wall. The bottom of their legs and their feet disappear into the dark floor, which provides a kind of sculptural base for their figures. Above each black and white standing figure is a crouching, grimacing red and black figure. The image of Gilbert is placed above George and that of George above Gilbert in the compositional balancing typical to the artists’ multi-panelled photo-works of the 1970s. Gilbert, on one side, screws up his eyes and has his thumbs in his ears and his fingers sticking up above his head. George on the other side opens his eyes wide behind his glasses, sticks out his tongue and points towards his face. The artists transformed their childish gestures of mockery and rebellion into caricatured horror by lighting themselves from below and colouring the images red. Positioned above the proud patriots, the red artist-gargoyles seem to evoke their sinister alter-egos.
England belongs to an unusually large series of photo-works collectively titled Modern Fears, which Gilbert and George produced between 1980 and 1981. They represent a departure from the earlier series in several ways. Wall-mounted photographic installations were the most frequent format of the artists’ work from the early 1970s onwards. These were entirely black and white until 1974, when they began to use the colour red, in the Cherry Blossom series, tinting black and white photographs to heighten emotional impact. In such works as Red Morning Trouble 1977 (Tate T07155), red panels are juxtaposed with black and white panels in a formal pattern that increases the work’s visual intensity. In 1984 George explained:
We use colour in different ways. At first we used red and then we used red and yellow. Now we use more colours, but in each picture they mean something different. It depends on how we put them to work. They can be symbolic or they can be atmospheric or emotional. You can say red is like love, or it is like blood, or danger, or fire. It’s used in different ways, not in a simplistic way. It’s more a part of our own language, really – part of our vocabulary.
(Quoted in Ratcliff, p.XXIX.)
Although much of their work of the 1970s centred on the themes of drunkenness, alienation, depression and isolation, the artists almost always appear expressionless, perfectly composed in their neat, smart suits. In 1980 they began photographing each other as gargoyles, producing large close-ups of their faces, lit from below, grimacing horribly and accompanied by such titles as Misery (Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) and Hellish (Baltimore Museum of Art). In another image produced in the same year, Black Gargoyles (collection unknown), they overtly identify themselves with gargoyles, while in Two Tongues (collection unknown) they mimic the pose of a Victorian, mock-gothic sculpture of a dragon, itself photographed to produce the work Nationalism (collection unknown). Nationalism, patriotism and what it means to be British were a dominant theme in Gilbert and George’s work, following their politically charged Dirty Words Pictures, made in 1977, of which Cunt Scum (Tate T07406) is an example. This earlier series seems to express an apparently paradoxical identification with both the old fashioned middle-class establishment and with such traditionally abject and threatening members of society as tramps, alcoholics and homosexuals. However, in England the gargoyle figures ‘express the artists’ inner feelings and fears about forces outside England who wish to invade the country’ (The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, p.99), identifying the artists with guardians of the old order. As in much of Gilbert and George’s work of the period, contradictory elements coexist uneasily in their carefully and laboriously crafted, photographic ‘sculptures’.
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, Tate Gallery, London 1984, pp.98-9
Brenda Richardson, Gilbert and George, exhibition catalogue, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore 1984.
Carter Ratcliff, Gilbert and George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, London 1986, pp.XXVII-XXIX, reproduced (colour) p.140