By Andrew Jack
8 December 1997 - Tucked
away in a discreet showcase in their Paris exhibition, the artists
Gilbert and George themselves provide the best commentary on their
work. In a small printed guide, they lay out their guiding principles,
including: describe what you do as art; and make sure people pay lots
of money for it.
With such a transparent public health
warning put so explicitly onto paper so early in their careers, it is
hard to be entirely critical of their subsequent work. Even the
pretentiousness of some of their subsequent videotaped conversations
about art can be partially forgiven.
For if Gilbert &
George are best known for their giant, multi-coloured photographic
works - which are present at the Paris museum of modern art in
abundance - one of the pleasures of this latest retrospective is the
variety of examples of the other media in which they work.
to some overly exhaustive previous exhibitions in the same gallery,
this one comes in a handily digestible size, with plenty of
opportunities to observe their evolving art and to see films in which
they attempt to explain what they are up to - sometimes in locations
as exotic as China.
Indeed, it is certainly intriguing to
imagine the reactions that their often eye-browing raising pictures
must have triggered in such conservative places as Zurich, not to
mention Moscow and Shanghai - where their outspoken support of
capitalism in the art market must have shocked as much as the art
equally vocal support for Mrs Thatcher, the former British prime
minister, looks especially intriguing when contrasted with the stark,
rain-drenched, concrete tower block-scattered images of London
Life No.16 - 1975, which would arguably have been enough
to turn anyone into a rabid socialist.
There again, the two
men (one born in Devon, the other in Italy) were already standing out
from the mood of the times in the 1970s and 1980s by cultivating their
near-identical, smartly-dressed images (Nature Piece - 1971) - and
even while still in art school, where they first met.
they have long attempted to stun verbally (George the Cunt and Gilbert
the Shit - 1969), explicit nudity has come rather more recently, and
more often features themselves (Faith Drop - 1991) - perhaps a little
past their best - rather than others Naked
Forest - 1982.
can be few artists to be able to claim such an intimate link with
their viewers, even if the most recent In
the shit - 1996 experiments with bodily fluids echo the
work of others such as Andres Serrano.
is not to say that some of their stylised art would not fail to shock
certain sensibilities either through its anatomical explicitness
- 1982 or its non-too-subtle coded forms (Rose Hole -
1980). Flowers are a preferred metaphor Good
the word play - and its association with the connected image - is
among the most entertaining aspects of their work, from the
understated (Bottoms Up - 1973) to more perhaps rather less ambiguous
friends - 1982and not always even sexual (Light-headed -
have been exploring strong combinations of words with their images
from the start of their careers, such as in some of the roughly
sketched "self" or "mutual" portraits
my life I give you nothing and still you ask for more - 1970.
is plenty of stand-alone visual humour too (The Glass - 1973), with a
series of photographs of glasses and the artists drinking from them
carefully positioned. Or in the case of a restaurant menu on display,
with a coloured remnant of each item of food and wine next to the
after all, not every one of the Gilbert & George pictures need be
seen as homo-erotic. Some of the most powerful, such as the stark
outline of a tree in winter Intellectual
Depression - 1980 have other subjects entirely.
crops up periodically too, albeit in a hardly favourable light
Faith - 1982, and often in connection with temptation
God - 1983. Perhaps fortunately for the artists, even
before Salman Rushdie showed what a bad idea it could be, they chose
to avoid too much reference to erotic connections with other belief
it is the sheer size and colour of the works that perhaps stands out
most (Class War - 1986), and the evocative which is most impressive
Edge - 1988. You may not be able to afford them, or want
to squeeze them into your home even if you could, but there is
something for everyone except the prude.
Jack is the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times and a member
of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com. He is the author of a
new book entitled, "The French Exception" (London: Profile