Fragments of a scene flash in the darkness: a clenched fist, a curled body, a splash of what could only be blood. Marshaled by the absolute logic of the grid, the images coalesce into the monumental Cherry Blossom No. 5, part of Gilbert & George’s remarkable twelve-work Cherry Blossom series from 1974. This work is an early, pioneering example of Gilbert & George’s photo-sculptures and the elements—equally sized and ordered into the regular arrangement of a rectangle—set up a marching, staccato rhythm. Recognizing the impact of this format, which from this moment on would be used exclusively, Gilbert emphasized how it emboldened their message “Form to make it more powerful, form to make the pictures speak louder, form to make it… more aggressive” (quoted in Gilbert & George: The Rudimentary Pictures, 1998, exh. cat., Milton Keynes Gallery, Gagosian Gallery, Milton Keynes 1999, n.p.). Over the course of a lengthy and exceptional career, Gilbert & George have gone on to push the boundaries between photography, collage and painting, compiling iconic panels teeming with encyclopedic diversity, exploiting color and scale to make the particular and the abstract blur together.
A complex, swirling symmetry is established in the eight figurative panels: closed, threatening fists push in from each of the cardinal points, while Gilbert & George alternately lie prone on a bed of crumpled newsprint. Their trademark suits continuously oscillate in meaning between the photographs: the smartly dressed forearm lends the fist an authoritarian aggression, whilst on the curled bodies they are emblematic of a social norm disrupted, a disturbing victimhood. The scene has the carefully-composed menace of film noir: the stark contrast of light and shade renders Gilbert & George’s faces unrecognizable, peculiar shadows distorting their features, while the sharply-delineated darkness cast by their bodies is a portending presence, threatening to swallow them up.
Meeting at the St Martins School of Art in London in 1967, where both were students on the sculpture course, Gilbert & George irrevocably linked their lives together by declaring themselves to be a work of ‘living sculpture.’ Their early work documented this conceptual leap, recording their endeavors as sculptures through a series of manifestos, magazine articles and postcards. The spectacular success of The Singing Sculpture, in which the artists performed Flanagan and Allen’s vaudeville anthem ‘Underneath the Arches’ with Pierrot-like pathos for hours at a time, took Gilbert & George on a tour of Europe and America. But as 1970s England descended into uneasy nostalgia, economic torpor and political violence, Gilbert & George’s work seemed to mirror this tumble into darkness, spiraling away from the whimsical naiveté of the early experiments, and taking on themes such as the randomness of urban violence in Dark Shadow, 1974, and the squalor of heavy drinking in Human Bondage, 1974. Their artistic output now focused on the photo-sculptures, visceral self-portraits of the ‘living sculptures’ which posed, cropped and repeated the faces, hands and bodies of the ‘living sculptures’ themselves.
The introduction of vivid, vehement red dye in eight of the sixteen elements intensifies the urgency of Cherry Blossom No. 5. This was a significant departure from previously solely monochrome work, and the artists acknowledged the emotive impact of color. “Red has more strength than black. Black and white is powerful but red on top is even more so. It’s louder” (quoted in “The Fabric of Their World: from Interviews with Carter Ratcliff 1986,” in R. Violette and H. Obrist (eds), The Words of Gilbert & George, London 1997, p. 156). Unadulterated red pigment would be the only color to feature in Gilbert & George’s work for a further six years, displaced from predominance only in 1980 by the introduction of paint-palette yellow, green and blue. In Cherry Blossom No. 5, uniquely amongst the works of this series, the scarlet dye is allowed a life of its own, spilling liberally across the photographs, frozen in the moment of impact at the corners. The primeval resemblance to blood, foreshadowing much of Gilbert & George’s later explorations of bodily fluids, gives the piece much of its alarming, compelling immediacy.
The artists have recalled how violence dominated their lives at this point, when their rebellion against prevailing social norms was met with brutality in the pubs of inner-city London. The work’s title stems from this same destructive impulse “The violence of the East, the extreme discipline of martial arts in the Orient fascinated us. The name Cherry Blossom originated in that fascination” (quoted ibid., p. 156). Eastern philosophy and culture had mesmerized the artists during a tour of several Asian countries some time before, and the potent symbol of the cherry blossom appealed to the sense of self-immolation current in their art. In the Japanese psyche the cherry blossom has been an enduring metaphor for the transience of life, where breathtaking beauty meets the swiftness of death, as well as being a wider emblem of Japanese self-identity. This aesthetic was militarized by the Imperial Japanese Army at the end of the Second World War, when idealistic young students were urged to sacrifice their lives for the Empire by the symbol of the cherry blossom, emphasizing the intensity and ephemerality of life. In Gilbert & George’s work, this intricate iconography receives a particularly poignant representation in the spilling red pigment of the corner panels, which so easily could be scarlet cherry blossoms.
Gilbert & George enacted the avant-garde aspiration that art should be immediately accessible to all those who saw it. “We became more interested in Art for All,’ Gilbert explained their refusal to participate in the obfuscation that dominates so much contemporary art, ‘That’s exactly what we want to do, make art for every single person” (quoted in ibid., p. 162). An axiom of this universality is the sacrifice that Gilbert & George have made in dedicating themselves – their bodies, their beliefs, their experiences – to the creation of a life-long artistic project. Cherry Blossom No. 5 is an emotional outpouring, a frantic confession – and it is this brutal honesty which allows it to speak so starkly to the viewer.