© The Artists


Gilbert & George (1942 & 1943 – )


242 X 202 CM
Accession number


This 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. This, along with several related studies from the same period, contrasts with some of the artists’ brasher pictures, which teem with life and activity.

Gilbert & George, partners in life and art, have created a universe in which their entire existence is an artwork. From their very first ‘Singing Sculpture’ (1969), made whilst still students at St Martin’s School of Art, and in which they move in synch and sing along with the Depression-era song ‘Underneath the Arches’, through to their timeless near-matching tailoring, their entirety is heavily formalised. They are well-known icons of British art, although they have always, to some extent, existed as outsiders – never venturing very far from their long-term residence in Fournier Street, East London, and eat¬ing in the same cafe every day at the same time. ‘Art is for All,’ claim Gilbert & George, and ‘Art is Life.’ As they explain in their inimi¬table rhetorical style, the subject matter of art ‘must be the human condition: we believe in the human condition as the supreme ideal. Man is the most amazing thing of all and the whole formal side of art – colours and forms – is there only to serve the subject and is of no importance in itself. We hate art for art’s sake – we are totally opposed to it.’[1]

Gilbert & George have been chroniclers of modern life for more than 40 years, and huge swathes of life – shocks, shits, crucifixes and hoodies – have met within the confines of their signature grid. The themes that concerned the artists in 1980, however, are governed by the twin poles of religion and despair – a faith in life which is bleak and empty. Intellectual Depression is prefigured by a gradual move during the 1970s towards darker themes such as depression, alcohol and madness, and draws on a motif of an earlier picture, Branch (1978),[2] in which the austere silhouette of a naked branch appears against a red background above the heads of the artists.

Alongside these thematic developments, however, was the start of a new kind of richness in the artists’ palette. Gilbert & George had recently moved away from black and white monochrome images, and had begun to develop a process employing a deep red. The year of Intellectual Depression, 1980, was the first that they used the colour yellow, in a related picture, Waiting.[3] The depth and richness of these hues, fixed within a dark grid-like structure, cre¬ates the impression of stained-glass windows. As Suzanne Pagé has noted, ‘Like the artists of the Middle Ages, Gilbert & George create images to initiate and explain.’[4] We might imagine that the message preached in this picture is a type of warning. Many pictures from 1980 concern the aesthetics of living with fear, and the use of yel¬low and black is almost sickly, recalling a hazard sign or a wasp. For such prescient artists, who prefigured an age in which terror would have such an inflated currency, this early picture barks a lesson at us about the effect of strangulation that any such climate of fear has on the intellect, and on the soul.


[1]. Gilbert & George in interview with Irmeline Lebeer, Art Press, 47 (April 1981), 23–25.
[2]. Private collection.
[3]. Private collection.
[4]. Suzanne Pagé, introduction to Gilbert & George, exh. cat. (Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1997), 16.

Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009