'We want our works to be real, life-like, true to life. We are interested in the truth... We are of life, part of it. So our images must have that reality. They are real things' (C. Ratcliff, 'Gilbert and George: The Fabric of Their World', Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, Bordeaux 1986, p. XXXIII).
Bathed in a radiant glow of brilliant red light, Gilbert & George's Bloody Life No. 13 is one of the largest works from what is widely regarded as one of the most important series of their career to date. Acquired directly from their debut exhibition of the series at the Galleria Lucio Amelio in Naples in 1975, this striking work has remained in the same private collection for the past four decades. Each individual panel still resonates with the same vibrancy, the quality of the photographs and colour remaining as potent as when they were first created. Comprised of sixteen hand-coloured images, the composition of this large grid mimics the geometric construction of the soaring buildings that hover around the central figures of Gilbert & George. With lingering traces of their Living Sculptures which propelled them into the consciousness of the art world in 1969, the pair are dressed in their iconic matching tweed suits and clutching sheets of newspapers. The symmetrical nature of the composition (the full-length pose in which they radiate out from each other at right angles) is one of their favoured motifs and appeared regularly in their work from this period in which crosses, swastikas and the jaunty angles of the British Union Jack became a common thread. Over the course of their remarkable career, Gilbert & George have pioneered new directions in European conceptual art. Elevating photography to the status of art, they introduced new, enlarged scales of reproduction into the medium, creating ingenious compilations of multiple prints into a single work.
The Bloody Life series is one of the first in which Gilbert & George introduced colour into their previously monochrome works. This departure brought a powerful new dimension to their work as George 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. It's louder' (G. Passmore quoted in C. Ratcliff, 'Gilbert & George: The Fabric of Their World', Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, Bordeaux 1986, p. XXIII). There was also a political dimension to their choice of colour too. One of the defining qualities of Gilbert & George's work was their uncanny ability to capture the zeitgeist of a particular moment. Works such as Bloody Life No. 13 seemed to anticipate the social tensions that would emerge in Britain later in the decade and which culminated in the industrial strife of the late 1970s, a political atmosphere that had a direct relationship to the works that the artists were producing at this time. 'For years we saw only red in front of our eyes... Red in political terms... Misery' (G. Passmore and G. Proesch, Gilbert & George, London 2007, p. 60). This feeling became so powerful that in a select number of works from the series, such as the present work, the artists coloured each individual element rather than create a composition comprising of coloured and monochrome elements. The result is a powerful and breathtaking work which has lost none of its ability to instill in the viewer a sense of awe and majesty.
This work comes from Gilbert & George's iconic Bloody Life series- one of the most important series of their career. The title possesses a dual meaning: one which refers literally to being covered in blood and more obliquely to the colloquial English uses of the term to mean something terrible or extreme in nature. This extreme nature can be seen not only in their dramatic use of colour, but also in the exacting depiction of the artists themselves and the buildings that surround them. This imagery articulates their perceived imbalance between man and nature and the artist's sense of alienation in the contemporary urban landscape. Having emerged from the isolation of their house in Fournier Street in London's East End (featured in their preceding Dark Shadow series) the pair emerges blinking into the red-tinged daylight of their urban environment. In this strange, alien environment Gilbert & George found the perfect foundation for their unique interpretation of art and its place in contemporary society, as Carter Ratcliff points out 'Bloody Life posits an awfulness in the simple fact of biological existence and so provides a motive for art, for endowing life with the quality of sculpture' (C. Ratcliff, op. cit.).
The rawness and energy of the street has always been an important ingredient in Gilbert & George's work. Partly inspired by their love of the early film adaptations of the novels of Charles Dickens, the world the artists saw outside their window has been the main source of inspiration for over four decades. London's East End has been the stage upon which they assemble a cast of characters, often with themselves in the starring role, to play out their version of the world as they see it. They have always regarded their work as being 'true to life' about real life and true to life; for them the city encompasses their whole world in one place, as they once commented 'The East End of London is the typical planet earth place... Its like a little picture of the general world's state' (Gilbert & George, http://www.eastendfilmfestival.com/index.php?/programme [accessed 6th December 2011]).
Bloody Life No. 13 provides an early glimpse into the power and provocative nature of Gilbert & George's work. In terms of both its scale and vibrancy, this work provides one of the most iconic examples of their work from this important period. Upon this foundation they built a body of work that charted a course between some sort of Victorian melodrama and an insightful discourse on contemporary life. As such Gilbert & George assert their determination to consider art not as an object for entertainment but as vital part of their mission of reaching and elevating the lives of the public. By inserting themselves firmly into the composition they embody the idea that an artist's personal investment is a necessary condition of art, 'We want our works to be real, life-like, true to life. We are interested in the truth... We are of life, part of it. So our images must have that reality. They are real things' (C. Ratcliff, op. cit., p. XXXIII).