Gilbert & George



Not on display

Gilbert & George born 1943, born 1942
16 photographs, gelatin silver print on paper with dye on paper mounted onto 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


Hunger consists of sixteen individually framed photograms arranged to produce a single image. The separate frames create thin black lines that form a four by four grid across the composition. Two erect penises emerge from the base of the image and diagonally cross the grid to be received orally by two heads that emerge from the upper corners of the composition. The reciprocity of their sexual act is highlighted by the use of red and yellow, which differentiates the ownership of the corresponding body parts. The figures and their genitalia are surrounded by white space. The title and date of the work, in addition to the artists’ signatures, are printed in black ink in the bottom right panel.

From 1981 onwards the range of Gilbert & George’s visual repertoire expanded significantly with the introduction to their work of the photogram technique that was used to produce Hunger. To make such works the artists created stencils and laid them onto light-sensitive paper. By exposing it to light the image of the stencil became imprinted on the paper, onto which bright dyes were then selectively applied. The photograms were dry mounted onto thin board and framed in black-painted aluminium frames with Perspex glazing. When exhibited the framed works are hung on horizontal tracks.

The new use of photograms in their work coincided with increased sexual narrative in Gilbert & George’s output. In the artists’ opinion, the success of the photogram was that it tempered the effect of this sexual content through the playful nature of the constructed images:

We wanted to confront the viewers in a museum, as normally you don’t see this stuff, and make them accept it. It was done in a cartoon-like way because in reality they would never have been accepted at that time.
(Quoted in ‘Hunger’, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh,, accessed 18 January 2016.)

Hunger presents fellatio as a fulfilling act. The work’s imagery implies that the artists’ use of the word ‘hunger’ references a sexual desire rather than a nutritional craving and that the sexual act depicted will ultimately alleviate this urge. Despite this, Gilbert & George’s use of sexual imagery is not intended to alarm the viewer, nor is it included for voyeuristic reasons. The artists themselves have said that ‘shocking is a media idea, it is not an artist idea’ (quoted in Tate Modern 2007, p.11). In art historian Wolf Jahn’s interpretation, the cartoonish rendering of explicit imagery can be seen as the artists utilising the medieval tradition of heraldry. Jahn observes that ‘this way of dealing with form, placing it on the picture surface and then distinguishing it by the use of colour, has important affinities with heraldry: its purpose is not realistic depiction but clear signalling. Coats of arms need to be instantly recognisable from a distance’ (Jahn 1989, p.327).

By differentiating the figures using colour, the viewer is able to easily identify the ownership of body parts, leading to a clear presentation of the piece’s central theme of male homosexuality. The use of photograms not only allowed the artists to present gallery audiences with sexual imagery, but also, more significantly, with homosexual imagery. Hunger was created only fifteen years after homosexual acts were decriminalised in the UK. Gilbert & George have discussed the abuse they faced living in London as openly gay men during this period. In a 1974 interview with writer Gordon Burn, Gilbert explained that ‘It was the time of the queer-bashing’ (‘Gilbert & George: Interview with Gordon Burn’, reproduced in Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Robert Violette (eds.), The Words of Gilbert & George, London 1997, p.72). Hunger simultaneously speaks of social progress and the continued challenges that were faced by the gay community.

In conjunction with Hunger, Gilbert & George created works including Thirst 1982 (Tate AR00174) and Sperm Eaters 1982 (reproduced in Tate Modern 2007, p.92). In addition to sharing visual similarities, these works also engage with the human body’s excretions. While scatological content had been implied or referenced in Gilbert & George’s work before this point, it had not been so openly displayed (see, for instance, George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit 1969, Tate AR00170). Male sexuality had also played an important role in the artists’ work since their series Red Morning 1977 (see Red Morning Trouble, Tate T07155), a title that perhaps refers to a new sexual awakening. Such imagery became more prevalent in The Dirty Words Pictures 1977, with male genitalia first appearing in The Penis 1978 (reproduced in Jahn 1989, p.225). In The Penis a found graffiti drawing shows a penis ejaculating into a woman’s mouth with ‘SUCK’ written underneath it. Following The Penis, Gilbert & George created a vast catalogue of works that examine sex, male sexuality and most significantly sex between men. Female sexuality is almost entirely excluded from these works, most likely because they are intended to speak for Gilbert & George’s own personal experiences. This is discussed by art historian Marco Livingstone, who has argued that the artists have used male models exclusively in their work because the boys are ‘stand-ins for the artists themselves, which is one of the prime reasons that they never use females in their pictures’ (Marco Livingstone, ‘From the Heart’, in Tate Modern 2007, p.22). Livingstone observes that this exclusion has led to misconceptions that their art is misogynistic.

Further reading
Carter Ratcliff, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971–1985, exhibition catalogue, CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux, Bordeaux 1986, reproduced p.184.
Wolf Jahn, The Art of Gilbert & George, London 1989, reproduced p.338.
Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007, reproduced p.91.

Daisy Silver
The University of Edinburgh
January 2016

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

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Display caption

‘We are driven by everything that is slightly taboo, by the forbidden.’ Sexuality is a central theme of Gilbert & George’s work, which is explored in images that are often provocative and disconcerting. Hunger and Thirst show a sexual act that is depicted in a cartoon-like, almost diagrammatic, manner. The artists have commented on these works: ‘we wanted to confront the viewers in a museum, as normally you don’t see this stuff, and make them accept it. It was done in a cartoon like way because in reality they would never have been accepted at that time’.

Gallery label, February 2010

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.


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