Gilbert was born in the Dolomites, Italy in 1943 and studied at Hallein School of Art and Munich Academy of Art. George was born in Devon, England in 1942 and studied at Dartington Hall College of Art and Oxford Art School. They began working together in London shortly after first meeting at St Martin’s School of Art, London in 1967, and have continued to do so ever since.
Gilbert & George invented and have been constantly developing their own visual language: “the content of mankind is our subject and our inspiration”. Using themselves as the primary subject of their art, they first appeared as “Living Sculpture” in 1969. Wearing conventional suits, with their faces and hands painted, they would either adopt statuesque poses which lasted for several hours or, in the case of their most famous live performance Underneath the Arches, they were the “Singing Sculpture” standing on a table singing to a record of the old English music hall song of the same title. In addition to these durational performances, they made “Postcard Sculptures” “Magazine Sculptures” and were early pioneers of video art with their “Sculptures on Video Tape”. Between 1970 and 1974 they executed thirty “Charcoal on Paper Sculptures” — large drawings in charcoal with text which in some instances completely covered the gallery walls and ceilings. In 1971 they made a series of paintings in oil on canvas entitled The Paintings (with Us in the Nature), a body of work which they again referred to as “sculpture”. Photography was to become their primary medium and, from the mid 1970s to the present, they have produced an enormous body of wall-based works using black rimmed grids to enable them to work on a large scale.
Intellectual Depression (1980) is perhaps one of Gilbert & George’s starkest pictures, concerned with imagery of a dark, malformed growth, and orbiting notions of death and decay. A black silhouette of a skeletal leafless tree appears on a rich yellow background, seeming to raise a twisted claw to the sky. The featured tree grew in Finsbury Circus in London and was a gift from the Japanese government as reparation after World War II. A poorly-made plaque on the tree detailed its history, though both tree and plaque were removed shortly after Gilbert & George’s picture was made.
Their first solo exhibition was in 1968 at a sandwich bar in the West End of London, and their first public gallery exhibition was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 1971. Since then Gilbert & George have had innumerable exhibitions throughout the world and retrospectives at many major museums, including: the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and tour in 1980-1, Baltimore Museum of Art and US tour in 1984-5, China Art Gallery, Beijing and the Art Museum, Shanghai in 1993, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1997, and Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon in 2002. They were awarded the Turner Prize at the Tate Gallery, London in 1986 and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2005. In 2007 Gilbert & George had a major retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern, London, which was subsequently toured to Haus der Kunst, Munich and Castello di Rivoli, Italy.