Gilbert & George

Fallen Leaves


Not on display

Gilbert & George born 1943, born 1942
16 hand-coloured photographs, gelatin silver print on paper on board
Displayed: 2424 × 2020 × 25 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
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


Fallen Leaves is a black and white photographic work by Gilbert & George in which a portrait of a homeless man is framed by six leaves of various sizes. The four leaves on either side of the man’s face point upward, while the top leaf is pointed left and the bottom leaf to the right. The man stares directly at the camera with a face covered in unkempt facial hair. His face has signs of injury, including a gash on the right side of his nose, a cut on his lip and an abrasion on his right cheek. The work consists of sixteen individually framed pieces arranged to produce a single image. The thin black lines of the frames form a four by four grid across the composition. The title and date of the work, in addition to the artists’ signatures, are printed in black ink in the lower right panel.

The sixteen prints in Fallen Leaves were developed using the gelatin silver process, which produces black and white images. In the case of this work the photographs were printed on resin-coated paper and later hand-coloured before being dry mounted on thin board and framed in black-painted aluminium frames with Perspex glazing. When exhibited, the sixteen framed works are hung on horizontal tracks.

Gilbert & George have lived and worked together on Fournier Street in east London since 1968. They first produced photographic compositions in the 1970s and within a decade gridded assemblages formed by individual prints became a major and lasting part of their oeuvre. Early on the artists established a pattern of photographing each other, and it was not until 1980 that Gilbert & George began to take arranged photographs of others. To obtain images of other people before this point, the artists had photographed covertly from the window of their home with a telephoto lens. Art historian Brenda Richardson writes that by directing models in the studio or photographing subjects on the street with permission, Gilbert & George found they could exert greater artistic control over their subjects (Richardson 1984, p.55). The man depicted in Fallen Leaves was one such model who agreed to be photographed in situ, and it is through works such as this that the artists increasingly explored and interacted with the urban environment around them. This is further evidenced by the artists’ 1981 film The World of Gilbert & George, where shots of city streets, urban buildings and the homeless are given prominence. The duo’s reverence for the city can be seen in earlier series such as The Dirty Words Pictures 1977, where assembled photographs depict graffiti and city architecture (see, for instance, Cunt Scum 1977, Tate T07406).

The six ‘fallen leaves’ that border the portrait are perhaps symbolic of individuals that have fallen from the collective tree and are living on the fringes of society. In this way Fallen Leaves can be seen to embody Gilbert & George’s declaration of an ‘Art for All’, expressed in their 1986 statement ‘What Our Art Means’. In it the artists declared: ‘We want Our Art to speak across barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art’ (Gilbert & George, ‘What Our Art Means’, reproduced in Hans Ulrich Obrist and Robert Violette (eds.), The Words of Gilbert & George, London 1997, p.149). This statement can be seen as a pledge by the artists to create works relevant to those outside the narrow parameters of the art world. Additionally, Gilbert & George have explained their intention to encourage the acceptance of diverse groups by wider society: ‘Relationships between people and the world are fraught with enormous misunderstandings and frustrations. Barriers can only be broken down by culture. In our pictures, this is probably our greatest concern, now more than ever before.’ (Gilbert and George: The Complete Pictures 2007, p.9.)

Fallen Leaves is part of the series Modern Fears, which was produced between 1980 and 1981 (see also Happy 1980, Tate T07156). The series touches on the hopes and fears experienced by dwellers in a modern metropolis. In a 1985 interview George explained that: ‘We’re not interested in formal aspects of picture making, we think that’s decadent. Blue in the corner and a green line down there. We like the idea of bringing a respect to the individual in the world.’ (‘Morning Coffee with Gilbert & George: Interview 1985’, reproduced in Obrist and Violette 1997, p.142.) Often depicting the disenfranchised and dispossessed, Gilbert & George endeavour to present an unfiltered depiction of their immediate urban environment. In 1981 they explained: ‘We don’t exclude anything, we like the whole. Sometimes we do represent disturbed times … If that is the case’ (‘Gilbert & George: An Interview with Mark Francis’, reproduced in Obrist and Violette 1997, p.115).

Even within the restricted locality of their geographical area, the artists have been able to capture a broad range of human experiences, expressing concerns that are at once local and universal. A dedication to this subject matter has long persisted in Gilbert & George’s artistic output: their early performance The Singing Sculpture was presented in 1969, featuring the artists singing ‘Underneath the Arches’, a 1932 song originally performed by comedians Flanagan and Allen, who assumed the character of two homeless men who romanticise sleeping on the streets. More than decade later, in The World of Gilbert & George, the artists interview a drunk, homeless man who, in a later scene, is invited into their home for a meal.

Further reading
Brenda Richardson, Gilbert & George, exhibition catalogue, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore 1984, reproduced p.101.
Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures, 1971–2005, London 2007, reproduced p.318.
Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007.

Daisy Silver
The University of Edinburgh
July 2016

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

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Display caption

Fallen Leaves is one of a series of over a hundred works collectively titled ‘Modern Fears’ which explicitly invoke death and decay. The artists have said of this period that ‘we felt the style of the Western world, the fabric of its life, was very threatened’. With this body of work they presented both the bleak horror and great beauty of life as they saw it in their immediate urban environment. The series depicts many figures who appear to be disenfranchised from mainstream society. Fallen Leaves, for example, depicts close up the inscrutable features of a local tramp.

Gallery label, February 2010

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