Gilbert and George Despertandose Waking 1984

Waking, 1984

"Our inspiration is all those people alive today on the planet, the desert, the jungle, the cities. We are interested in the human persons, the complexity of life."
Gilbert and George, 2012 (1)

In 1965, Gilbert Proesch (b. Dolomitas, Italy, 1943) and George Passmore (b. Devon, England, 1942) met as students in the Advanced Sculpture course at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London. "It was like love at first sight," said George. (2) They began working and living together. They merged their identities so completely that people never think of one without the other; no surnames, individual biographies, or separate bodies of work hinder their unique twinship. (3) Gilbert and George always wear matching suits, matching ties, and Parker pens in their breast pockets. They adopted this particular style in order to embrace formal, old-fashioned values, which they described in "The Laws of Sculptors," their 1969 manifesto, which begins: "Always be smartly dressed, well groomed, relaxed, friendly, polite and in complete control."

Gilbert and George don’t use the Internet, except for booking tickets, and while they never answer their telephone, their number has always been listed in the phone book. (4) Since day one, they became inseparable and quickly started to formulate the idea that would be their greatest achievement: to collapse the distance between art and the artist, and to devote their entire lives to becoming living sculptures. As a result, Gilbert and George "cannot separate their art from any aspect of their lives." (5)

The artists treat everything they encounter as a potential theme for their work, and they have always addressed social issues, taboos, and artistic conventions in a controversial and provocative way. They explore subject matter such as identity, race, religion, sexuality, urban life, terrorism, and death. Implicit in their work is the idea that an artist’s sacrifice and personal investment is a necessary condition of art. (6) The inspiration for much of their work comes from the East End of London where they have lived and worked for more than 40 years. Almost all of the images they use in their works are gathered from within walking distance of their home. (7)

Gilbert and George rose to fame in 1969 with ­the performance piece Singing Sculpture, in which they stood on a table dressed in their trademark suits and mimed, danced, and sang, sometimes performing for an entire day. In the early 1980s, Gilbert and George began to dye collaged photographs with lurid colors, thereby playfully summoning the tradition of ecclesiastical stained-glass windows. (8) They also started to hire casts of young men, many of them from their neighborhood, to use to produce large-scale, graphically bold, and provocative compositions. In Waking (1984), the artists occupy the center of a symmetrical and intensely colored multi-figure composition. They are circled by youths and boys representing heroes, carefully composing narratives within the image. (9) The young audience watches while the artists, their faces transformed into masks by overlaid color, mime the horror of some kind of inner awakening, perhaps the passage from boyhood to maturity, which the repetition of the artists’ figures at three different scales seems to suggest. (10)

Gilbert and George create each piece from single images and from separate photographic negatives that are superimposed in the darkroom. The subjects are taken against a black background and then the prints are hand-colored. The composition is assembled with a system of numbering each print in the grid and following the numbered sequence to assemble the final image.

1. "Gilbert & George," White Cube.

2. Gilbert & George, interview, Daily Telegraph, May 28, 2002.

3. "Gilbert & George," Collection Online, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

4. "Gilbert and George’s Postcards from the Edge," London Evening Standard, January 6, 2011.

5. "Gilbert & George Major Exhibition, Information and Activity Pack for Teachers," Tate Modern.

6. "Gilbert & George," White Cube.

7. "Gilbert & George Major Exhibition," Tate Modern.

8. "Gilbert & George," The Collection, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

9. "Gilbert & George," Collection Online, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

10. Ibid.


Since 1965, Gilbert and George established themselves as partners, as one artist, and with no individual identities or separate works of art. Ask students what they think could be the advantages and disadvantages of working as one. Do they know of other partnerships in which one identity represents two people?

Have the class describe this work as carefully as possible. Did they notice that Gilbert and George have been depicted in the center of the painting? Why do they think the artists depicted themselves in this way? An art historian said that the artists are flanked by youths and boys representing heroes, carefully composing narratives in the image. What can one learn about the artists’ subject matter by looking at the boys’ poses, facial expressions, and the ways they are placed in the work?