GILBERT & GEORGE (B. 1943 & B. 1942)
GILBERT & GEORGE (B. 1943 & B. 1942)

The Penis

Details
GILBERT & GEORGE (B. 1943 & B. 1942)
The Penis
signed and dated 'Gilbert and George 1978' (on the reverse)
mixed media, in sixteen parts
each: 23 7/8 x 19¾in. (60.4 x 50.2cm.)
overall: 94 7/8 x 79¼in. (241 x 201cm.)
Executed in 1978
Provenance
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London.
Private Collection.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's New York, 12 May 2004, lot 59.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
C. Ratcliff (ed.), Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, exh. cat., Bordeaux, CAPC Museé d'Art Contemporain, 1986 (installation view illustrated in colour, pp. 10-11 and 14, illustrated in colour, p. 122).
W. Jahn, The Art of Gilbert & George, New York 1989 (installation view illustrated in colour, p. 225).
R. Fuchs (ed.), Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-2005, Volume II 1988-2005, London 2007 (installation view illustrated in colour, unpaged).
Exhibited
Eindhoven, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Gilbert and George: Photo-Pieces 1968-1980, 1980-1981 (illustrated in colour, p. 262). This exhibition later travelled to Dusseldorf, Kunsthalle Dusseldorf; Bern, Kunsthalle Bern; Paris, Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou and London, Whitechapel Gallery.
Balitmore, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Gilbert & George,1984
(installation view illustrated in colour, p. 63).
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Gilbert and George, 1997-1998 (illustrated in colour, p. 139, installation view illustrated in colour, p. 375).
Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Gilbert & George 1970-1997, no. 22, 1999.
London, Tate Modern, Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, 2007-2009, no. 76 (illustrated in colour, p. 75). This exhibition later travelled to Munich, Haus der Kunst; Turin, Castello di Rivoli; San Francisco, De Young Fine Art Museum of San Francisco; Milwaukee, Milwaukee Art Museum and New York, Brooklyn Museum.

Lot Essay

'We found much of the graffiti in doorways. In every Western city, you just find it immediately, the moment you look. We became interested to know what makes a person do that' (George quoted in Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, New York 1986, p. XXIII).


Presented over sixteen panels, this monumental work is a striking example of Gilbert & George's unique blend of Old English charm and explicit sexual imagery. The pair have been challenging the sensibility of the art world with their distinctive blend of performance and pictures for over four decades, reaching a peak during the later years of the 1970s when they produced some of their most challenging and provocative works. The formal aspects of The Penis- the unequivocal imagery, the fiery red colour and the notion of self-portraiture all locate this work firmly in this important period of intense creativity. Its combination of colour, formal style and flagrant sexual imagery has made it one of Gilbert & George's most important early works and it has been included in two of their most important exhibitions to date, their first European retrospective in 1980 and their most recent international travelling exhibition organised by Tate Modern in London in 2007.

Dressed in their matching tweed suits, Gilbert & George hold a commanding position within the composition as their life-sized figures looking nonchalantly out from the centre of the work, as if momentarily distracted from the task at hand. Their motionless stance captures them as some sort of 'living sculpture,' recalling some of their earliest performance work in which they would dress in their trademark tweed suits and stand on a gallery table singing along to a recording of Flanagan & Allen's Underneath The Arches. Their identical clothing has become something of uniform for the pair and they rarely appear in their art (or even in public) without it. This iconic motif is distinguished from the rest of the composition through brilliant, almost psychedelic red hand-colored panels that form the central portion of the work. This striking use of colour is central to their artistic technique, adding to the power and confrontational nature of the work. Red was a particular favourite of theirs, as it can carry a variety of connotations depending on the situation in which it is used, as Gilbert pointed out: 'We were looking for a more aggressive, more powerful image. Red has more strength than black. Black and white is powerful but red on top of it is even more so. Its louder' (Gilbert, as quoted in Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, New York 1986, p. XXIII). On either side of the central panels are photographic images of trees reflected in the pools of winter rain. Probably taken in and around their east London home, these bare branches add a melancholic air to the composition. Exposed and vulnerable these naked branches conjure up an air of dejection which was rife throughout the wider British society at this time, as the economic turmoil and rolling industrial action of a pre- Thatcher Britain was endemic during this period and provided Gilbert & George with much of the inspiration for the artist's work during these fertile years.

Although the image of Gilbert & George occupies the central portion of the work, by far the most commanding element is the composition that runs along the lower edge of the four panels. This highly explicit image of the penis dominates; whilst its hand-drawn quality may capture the attention, its deeply explicit nature is what ensures the image will linger in the mind of the viewer. In typical Gilbert & George fashion nothing is left to the imagination, the image is placed before us to make our own judgment as to context and content. In an age when sex has become an omnipresent factor in our lives, the artists choose to use it as a source for inspiration. Created shortly after the artists' Dirty Words series, The Penis still bears the influence of the street graffiti Gilbert & George had been appropriating under their 'art for all' slogan. Indeed in The Penis, the eye-catching illustration is in fact a photographic reproduction of some lavatory graffiti they found, representing an ironic take on quintessential British 'toilet humour'. As they explained, 'we found much of the graffiti in doorways. In every Western city, you just find it immediately, the moment you look. We became interested to know what makes a person do that' (George quoted in Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, New York 1986, p. XXIII). By juxtaposing images of their own reserved demeanor with found graffiti and explicit, sexual images, Gilbert and George were engaging in a biting commentary on the maelstrom of contradictions inherent to contemporary society.
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