Happy is a set of sixteen individually framed photographs, arranged close together in a rectangular grid so that they comprise a single composition. This is split horizontally into a top and a bottom half, with each part depicting the head and hands of a man. The figure in the top half is shown from the shoulders up, with his hands raised at either side of his face while he gazes downwards and wrinkles his brow. He is bathed in a bright yellow hue and wears a suit and tie as well as glasses. The man in the bottom half is seemingly depicted upside down, with only his head and hands visible. He is coloured with a red tone and his intense expression and curled, tensed fingers could suggest manic excitement, anger or an attempt to frighten someone. Both figures are surrounded by black space, with no indication of a context, yet they each fill the majority of their respective areas and their images are cropped just below the tops of their heads. Thin black lines surrounding the edge of each of the sixteen photographs lend the overall work a gridded appearance. The title of the work, as well as the artists’ signatures and a date, are written in red in the bottom-right panel.
Happy was made by the British artists Gilbert and George in 1980, when they were living and working in east London. The artists were christened Gilbert Prousch (or Proesch) and George Passmore, but since 1968 they have produced all of their work collaboratively using only their first names. The work is a self-portrait, depicting Gilbert at the bottom and George at the top. The photographs are all black and white images printed on resin-coated paper and subsequently altered using coloured dyes. Each is dry-mounted onto laminate board and has its own metal frame that is painted matt black and glazed. All sixteen frames are affixed to a single piece of thick hardboard that is coated with melamine, and the inscriptions in the bottom-right corner were made using poster paint.
Happy is from a series of over a hundred works entitled Modern Fears that was produced during 1980 and 1981 (for another example, see Fallen Leaves 1980, Tate AR00171). It can also be seen as one of a smaller subgroup of works within this series, all comprising self-portraits of the artists depicted on opposite sides of a composition and coloured in red, bright yellow or both (see, for instance, Hellish 1980). The reference to happiness in this work’s title seems to contrast with the two figures’ expressions, since George looks serious and concerned, while Gilbert has a manic or deranged appearance that is reminiscent of villainous characters from early horror films. The strong colours and dark background used in this work also produce a sense of drama, rather than necessarily evoking a happy feeling.
Gilbert and George have frequently depicted themselves in their works since the late 1960s (see also Naked Eye 1994, Tate T07493). Discussing this, the art historian Marco Livingstone has argued that ‘in every new group of pictures, Gilbert and George have continued to speak unreservedly of the condition of their lives and their state of mind. Working pointedly within a society that prizes reticence to the point of hypocrisy, this naked and almost unmediated self-exposure has been their extraordinary gift to anyone confronted by their art’ (Marco Livingstone, ‘From the Heart’, in Tate Modern 2007, p.18). Although this statement represents a common reading of the artists’ self-portraits, it sits awkwardly in relation to Happy because this work, with its conflicting messages and dramatic colouring, does not clearly communicate any single ‘state of mind’ and could be understood to emphasise a theatrical act rather than a truthful reflection of the artists’ feelings.
The expressions depicted in this work are also made to feel more ambiguous by their decontextualisation, with no spatial or narrative background being provided to explain either artist’s pose. In 1999 George stated that he and Gilbert have often used images of people that somehow seem paused or removed from the usual flow of life as a means of inviting contemplation on the part of the viewer: ‘We want to be able to freeze thought in a way, to stop the watch, to make a frozen moment of feeling. Because we say if you walk across London Bridge in the morning, you’ll probably pass a thousand people, but you won’t be able to describe one single person’ (George Passmore in Milton Keynes Gallery 1999, unpaginated).
Gilbert and George: The Complete Pictures, 1971–1985, London 1986, reproduced p.157.
Gilbert and George: The Rudimentary Pictures, exhibition catalogue, Milton Keynes Gallery, Milton Keynes 1999.
Gilbert and George: Major Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007.
Supported by Christie’s.