Gilbert & George place themselves, their thoughts and their feelings at the centre of their art, and almost all of the images they use are gathered within walking distance of their home in London’s East End. Yet their pictures capture a broad human experience, encompassing an astonishing range of emotions and themes, from rural idylls to gritty images of a decaying London; from fantastical brightly-coloured panoramas to raw examinations of humanity stripped bare; from sex advertisements to religious fundamentalism.
From the beginning, they wanted to communicate beyond the narrow confines of the art world, adopting the slogan ‘Art for All’. As a result they have joined the very small handful of artists to become household names, and their impeccably-dressed figures are instantly recognisable to the general public. Bringing together a selection of pictures that spans their entire 40-year career, it is fitting that Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition is the largest retrospective of any artist to be held at Tate Modern.
George was born in Devon in 1942. Gilbert was born in Italy in 1943, in a small village in the Dolomites. They met as students on the sculpture course at St Martins School of Art, London, where they exhibited together and soon began to create art together. They adopted the identity of ‘living sculptures’ in both their art and their daily lives, becoming not only creators, but also the art itself.
They established their reputation in 1969 with THE SINGING SCULPTURE. Standing together on a table, they danced and sang the Flanagan and Allen standard Underneath the Arches – a song in which two tramps describe the pleasures of sleeping rough. It was a telling choice, harking back to prewar England and traditions of vaudeville, while also identifying with the fringes of society. Gilbert & George were invited to present THE SINGING SCULPTURE all over the world, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch. Realising, however, that they could reach only a handful of people at a time, they began to create films and pictures that could extend the idea of living sculpture without requiring their physical presence.
The exhibition is curated by Jan Debbaut and Ben Borthwick, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.