Gilbert and George are two portraits by Gerhard Richter featuring the artist duo Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore. Gilbert features the artist’s head and shoulders, he is formally dressed in a suit and tie and faces the viewer with a neutral expression. George is also present in the portrait as an upside-down ghostly overlay. Although his depiction is faded so that Gilbert’s features are dominant, his shoulders are visible along the top edge of the painting and his face overlaps with Gilbert’s, creating an illuminated oval in the centre of the otherwise dark composition. His lips are also faintly visible on Gilbert’s forehead and the impression of an eye is present on Gilbert’s left cheek. George’s most noticeable feature is his glasses, which sit on Gilbert’s cheekbones. The bottom edge of the glasses sits just above Gilbert’s right eye and cuts through his left. The other painting of the pair, George, has the same compositional technique. As George was made present in Gilbert, so too Gilbert featured in George’s portrait. Gilbert’s shirt collar and tie are clearly visible in the top centre of the painting. So too is his shoulder, which extends into the top right corner. Gilbert’s discernable facial features include both eyes, which are visible along the bottom rim of George’s glasses. The vague outline of his lips and chin also appear on George’s forehead. Subtle differences in the poses of the sitters are especially apparent in George’s portrait, as the illumination of their overlapped faces creates an uneven oval shape in the centre of the work.
Like Richter’s Brigid Polk 1971 (Tate AR00344), Gilbert and George were painted from a set of source photographs. Richter has said of his practice of painting from photographs that he ‘needed the greater objectivity of the photograph in order to correct [his] own way of seeing.’ (Quoted in Elger and Obrist 2009, p.64.) Richter took the photographs for these portraits in his own backyard in Brend’amourstraße in Düsseldorf, capturing the two artists from several positions and angles in order to create complex photographs with multiple exposures. In the resulting pictures, as Richter’s biographer Dietmar Elger describes it, ‘both men appear upside down and their faces fold into themselves and each other’ (Elger 2002, p.227). From these photographs Richter produced eight portraits, which were first exhibited together at the Konrad Fischer Galerie in Düsseldorf in 1975. All eight portraits reproduce in paint the multiple exposures found in the original photographs. The art historian and curator Paul Moorhouse argues that the overlapping images of the portraits gives ‘the impression of machine made, impersonal imagery’ (Moorhouse 2009, p.119). Richter himself has discussed the unusual effect of transposing the photographs into portraits: ‘the difficulty is that it looks so much like a trick. Not to mention the paintings were also very manneristic. Both of the small portraits end up looking like they were by Francis Bacon’ (quoted in Elger 2002, p.227).
The superimposition of the artists’ faces in these portraits suggests the close proximity with which Gilbert & George have lived and worked throughout their careers. A collaborative artist duo, Gilbert & George became known in the late 1960s for performances in which they exhibited themselves as ‘living sculptures’, wearing matching tweed suits. Gilbert Prousch, born in 1943 in in South Tyrol, Italy, and George Passmore, born in 1952 in Totnes in Devon, met in 1967 while studying sculpture at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London. Within a year of their meeting the pair had begun working together as Gilbert & George. Richter met the pair during their first show at the Konrad Fischer Galerie in Düsseldorf, ‘The Pencil on Paper Descriptive Works’, which opened on 10 May 1970 following one of Richter’s own exhibitions. Like Richter Gilbert & George positioned themselves outside the dominant artistic movements of the time. In a 1993 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Richter stated:
I liked them as outsiders, above all. At that time, Minimal, Land and Conceptual art were dominant. I valued all that, though I have very little to do with it. With Gilbert & George, too, I liked the very nostalgic side. They were the first people who liked my landscapes. I think what impressed me most was the way they took their own independence as a matter of course.
(Quoted in Elger and Obrist 2009, pp.298–9.)
The pair asked Richter to paint their portraits during one of their events at the Konrad Fischer Galerie in March 1974 (Elger 2002, p.226). According to Elger Richter was reluctant to take on the project, despite his respect for the two artists. Elger reports that Richter went so far as to attempt to ‘slip out of [the assignment] by insisting, for example, that [Gilbert & George] go on location to the Alps to take the photographs for the portraits’ (Elger 2002, p.226). When Gilbert & George immediately agreed to Richter’s suggestions, Richter gave in to their request.
Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, trans. by Elizabeth M. Solaro, London 2002, pp.193–201.
Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter: Text, Writings, Interviews and Letters, 1961–2007, London 2009.
Paul Moorhouse, Gerhard Richter Portraits: Painting Appearances, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 2009, pp.88–90.
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