Gilbert & George

George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit

1969

Artist
Gilbert & George born 1943, born 1942
Medium
2 photographs, colour, on paper on printed paper
Dimensions
Displayed: 305 x 484 mm
Acquisition
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Reference
AR00170

Not on display

Summary

George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit is a colour photograph by Gilbert & George. In this double self-portrait the artists are depicted from the waist up, both wearing suits with flowers attached to lapels. The work consists of two separate portraits, printed on either side of a double-page spread. The artists both look directly at the camera and smile as they appear to sit on grass, which makes up the background of each image. George, on the left, lifts a hand holding a cigarette while Gilbert, on the right, leans backward resting his hand on the ground. Letters, cut from paper, are attached to their suits like signs – George’s message reads ‘George the Cunt’ and Gilbert’s reads ‘Gilbert the Shit’.

This work is one in a series of ‘magazine sculptures’ that were published in newspapers and magazines and occasionally printed on postcards. However, George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit was first shown at 3pm on 10th May 1969 at the Robert Fraser Gallery in London by invitation only. It was then subsequently revealed to the public as a black and white reproduction in the journal Studio International in May 1970 (vol.179, no.922, pp.218–21) with the obscene words covered over. The composition, which has an appearance of spontaneity, was actually premeditated with several negatives taken in preparation for the final piece.

Gilbert & George wrote two texts to accompany George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit. In one text they describe a utopian ‘newer better world’ they envisaged as artists, and which would run according to four ‘laws of sculptors’ (reproduced in Ratcliff 1980, p.51). The first of these laws – ‘Always be smartly dressed, well groomed, relaxed, friendly, polite and in complete control’ – corresponds to the presentation of the artists in this work. This law also hints at Gilbert Prousch and George Passmore’s development of a conceptual practice in which their lives became ‘sculpture’. Their practice extended from ‘postal sculptures’, to ‘singing sculptures’, to ‘magazine sculptures’ and most famously to their presentation as ‘living sculptures’. This motif, which has endured throughout Gilbert & George’s career, refers to the artists’ assertion that their work physically occupies space regardless of media. They have described George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit as a pre-emptive attempt to deter criticism against their unusual art practice:

We knew there was a battle ahead and we wanted to be in there first, long before somebody could say we weren’t good artists, we couldn’t draw or we couldn’t paint, long before all that criticism began, we had already attacked ourselves, called ourselves ‘a Shit and a Cunt’.
(Quoted in ‘George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit’, National Galleries of Scotland, https://www.nationalgalleries.org/object/AR00170, accessed 7 December 2015.)

Gilbert & George’s Cunt Scum 1977 (Tate T07406) also makes use of obscene language, showing the artists either side of an image of graffiti that reads ‘Scum’. By placing themselves alongside this word, the artists appear to attach the word ‘cunt’ to themselves. Art historian Brenda Richardson observes that while works such as these might seem inappropriate or indecent to some audiences, Gilbert & George aim to ‘un-shock people’ and, in the artists’ own words, ‘bringing these subjects into the open, allowing them to live and breathe’ (Brenda Richardson, Gilbert & George, exhibition catalogue, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore 1984, p.15).

Since meeting as students at St Martin’s School of Art in London in 1967, Gilbert & George have developed an art practice that can be distinguished by their unrelenting dedication to and personal investment in living as an artistic duo all the time. Through their formal, almost uniform appearance, the removal of their surnames and combination of their first names, the artists relinquished their individual identities. George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit is an early example of the artists developing their single character through photography. The artists identify themselves individually by name in the work, which indicates that their inseparability had not yet been fully established. Art historian Anders Kold has observed that their conjoined character is in accordance with the art produced in the 1960s in which concept was placed above expression, writing that as ‘two in one’ Gilbert & George were able to escape from old fashioned ideas of individual authorial control and creativity (Sørensen and Kold 1992, p.10).

Further reading
Carter Ratcliff, Gilbert and George: 1968 to 1980, exhibition catalogue, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 1980, pp.8, 313, reproduced pp.52–3.
Wolf Jahn, The Art of Gilbert & George, London 1989, reproduced p.18.
Jens Erik Sørensen and Anders Kold (eds.) Gilbert & George: New Democratic Pictures, exhibition catalogue, Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark 1992, reproduced p.28.

Daisy Silver
University of Edinburgh
November 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

Display caption

This ‘magazine sculpture’ was published in the journal Studio International in 1970, where it was shown in black and white with the offending words censored. Gilbert & George have described this work as an attempt to pre-empt criticism of themselves: ‘we knew there was a battle ahead and we wanted to be in there first, long before somebody could say we weren’t good artists, we couldn’t draw or we couldn’t paint, long before all that criticism began, we had already attacked ourselves, called ourselves “a Shit and a Cunt”’.

Gallery label, February 2010

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