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A relationship of contrast

We are very proud that we have succeeded in acquiring The Paintings by Gilbert & George for the Kröller-Müller Museum’s collection. The purchase was supported by key players in the cultural field including the BankGiro Lottery, the Mondriaan Foundation, the Rembrandt Association and its Titus Fund, the VSB Foundation and the SNS REAAL Fund and the Dutch State contributed a considerable sum from the National Acquisition Fund. Gilbert & George have made the acquisition possible through their sympathy for our museum and their very lenient conditions. I consider it a beautiful symbol that the names Rembrandt and Mondrian are now linked with Gilbert & George in the museum where Vincent van Gogh occupies a place of honour.
What all these artists have in common with each other (and with many others) is that they made and make art with conviction, served and serve art with a mission and have enriched the lives of many millions of people. An artist’s right to exist is negotiated at the border of his or her individual motives and society’s need for his or her products. A spectrum of positions can be adopted between these two poles. Our museum, which preserves a collection built up over more than a hundred years, is founded on the conviction that artists are visionaries whose work provides an unconventional vision of the world and the human condition.
There are artists who never feature in their own work, who allow their art to speak for itself and there are those who are very much part of their work. I have perhaps the greatest admiration for this latter category, to which Gilbert & George obviously belong. There is a great danger that the artist’s message will be muddied by outside influences. As such, it is important for artists to maintain control of their public image, their private life, how their work is presented in exhibitions and in publications, and their relationship with the media.
By emphatically placing themselves at the centre of their work, Gilbert & George have not chosen the easiest path. In the beginning they presented themselves as a work of art: ‘living sculptors’. They no longer perform today but they are ever-present in their works through their photographic image. They have become icons of the modern artist: entrepreneurial, successful, attractive to a large public of all ages, amusing and accessible. But they have also safeguarded important achievements won by the avant-garde artists of the twentieth century: independence, freedom of thought and deed, and a critical mentality.
Gilbert & George coined their motto – Art for All – in the 1960s. For them, art and life overlap and in this respect they are part of an avant-garde, utopian tradition. I see a link with Theo van Doesburg, who established the now world-famous magazine De Stijl in 1917. Van Doesburg used the term 'a relationship of contrast' to describe his approach. He consciously used ‘contrast’ as a strategy to emphasise the dividing line between art and life in order to stimulate discussion about this question. And he deployed his own personality in this quest. One of his most striking tools for cutting through conventional arguments was his manner of dress. When, for example, he visited the Bauhaus, a bastion of bohemians dressed in extravagant rags, he donned a three-piece suit and a monocle and behaved like a dandy. It goes without saying that this did not always elicit a positive response, but it was effective nonetheless. Gilbert & George have turned this approach into a highly personal art form and so are the standard-bearers of a kind of creative sabotage. In so doing, they teach us a wise lesson and make beautiful and powerful art for all.

Evert van Straaten
January 2011

Photo: Walter Herfst