Derek Jarman: Protest! review – ‘Coherence is overrated’

A film of nothing but a static blue, haunted by voices and a tale of a man going blind, and thinking of buying shoes he will never get a chance to wear – his own will see him through. Self-portraits of a young man, anxious but done with the lightness of Matisse, and another, sullen and glowering, seeing himself as Wyndham Lewis. While you look, Pet Shop Boys are singing It’s a Sin, staged for a decadent pop video over the wall, vying with the industrial electronic noise of Throbbing Gristle leaking from another room.

Creativity is not a fashionable word. But you can’t think about Derek Jarman, painter, sometime theatre designer, film-maker, gay activist, writer and gardener, without recognising his multifarious and sometimes contradictory talents. He was both the most public and outspoken of artists, a hedonist and city dweller, and an introspective observer of nature, of birdsong and sunsets.

Jarman’s enthusiasm and energy, his outspokenness and curiosity saw him through to the end. He died at 52 from an Aids-related illness, in 1994. After his diagnosis as HIV-positive in 1986 Jarman made the decision to be open about his illness which, at that time, was invariably fatal. He had and would continue to lose many friends to Aids, and there is a thread of commemoration running through his later work. Jarman counted the losses.

In life, Jarman achieved a secular sainthood, canonised by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of gay male nuns. Since his death, he has become more than an artist of his time. A quarter of a century on, a blue plaque now commemorates what was once his studio on the Thames, and the Art Fund has purchased his black-tarred cottage, with its canary yellow windows, perched on the shingle of the Dungeness headland, for the nation. Jarman’s seaside garden drifts into the no-man’s land of the surrounding landscape. It has no discernible boundaries. Neither did its maker.

Currently, there is a show of Jarman’s work in Paris, for the city’s Festival d’Automne, and a large overview exhibition has just opened at Manchester Art Gallery, travelling from the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. A season of Jarman’s feature films and shorts at Manchester’s Home opens at the end of January, and another, smaller exhibition is now at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton.

Exhibitions that attempt an overview of Jarman’s life and work face the difficulty of his creativity. He did so much, in so many different ways, always going his own way. The variety of his approaches, and the shuttle between introspection and outrage, and the radical shifts in his tempo and method over the 40 or so years of his career don’t make life easy either for his curators or viewers. There’s too much to take in, so many different ways you have to look.

Derek Jarman: Protest! at Manchester Art Gallery dramatises these difficulties, which are in effect the difficulties of the artist himself. Curator Jon Savage has met Jarman’s complexity head-on in a theatrical installation in which paintings from the 1950s to the early 90s collide with photography and film, theatre design and pictures of the set he devised for Ken Russell’s movie The Devils. Here’s Margaret Thatcher’s Lunch, the place-setting stuck in black paint, the cutlery oozing red, and there’s the prize he won at the Alternative Miss World competition in 1979, a shapely leg covered in shards of broken mirror. Wall-sized blow-ups of Prospect Cottage and small driftwood and stone sculptures vie with songs by the Smiths.

This exhibition, like its lavish accompanying publication, and despite interesting essays, makes Jarman hard to read coherently. Coherence is probably overrated, and in any case, lives aren’t lived that way. Jarman was, I think, a reactive rather than programmatic artist, responding to the things and situations around him and the opportunities and challenges they presented – whether it was a sense of space in a painting or a landscape, an attractive personality, the larky, party atmosphere of his film sets or the flare of the gorse flowering near Dungeness’s nuclear power station.

Everywhere, there were miracles – human, botanical, literary, meteorological – and matters of geology, theology or poetry or sex. An atheist, Jarman had an almost gnostic sense of the spiritual. He could find it anywhere, especially perhaps in the profane, the transient, in the vitality of a dancing body or in the tenacity of plant life growing in the unlikely and hostile conditions of the shingle he tended.

Words, sometimes scrawled in thick paint, sometimes rendered in his distinctive, highly tuned calligraphy, were as important for Jarman as the mise-en-scène, the spectacle and the tableau. His writing is wonderful, and I keep returning to Modern Nature, his day-by-day journal of 1989 and 1990. It keeps me grounded. His later, small agglutinative paintings and assemblages have a similar brevity to his journal entries, with their daily reflections on weather, local incidents, politics, things found and seen and discovered on the foreshore. Always alert to the things around him, the world adheres to them, they rail against darkness.

His Super 8 shorts often capture the same fleeting world, of people and moments and light. They are all a kind of bricolage. With their broken glass and their morbid black surfaces, their confected agglomerations of spent bullets and seeds, unrolled condoms decaying under glass, a scatter of pills mired in paint, nasty, black tarry canvasses with medical bags and tubes, toy skeletons, rosary beads and crosses, and a grim, symmetrical arrangement of pharmaceutical bottles and packages called One Day’s Medications, these all become reliquaries of a life lived. Upping the scale, he also made two series of seething, bitter, large-scale abstractions, the paint spattered and smeared across their clotted, coagulated surfaces. They heave and drag, shout and repulse, without a moment of respite. Queer, they say. Blood. Infection. Disease. Weak and half-blind, Jarman was as much director as painter of these images, and couldn’t make them alone. They were deliberately confrontational.

Jarman the painter takes centre stage in Manchester, though he is constantly interrupted, not least by himself. His earlier paintings are filled with the ghosts of other painters, including Paul Nash, perhaps inevitably, and David Hockney. The mix is eclectic. The suave quasi-minimalism of his 70s landscape paintings are a kind of premonition of Dungeness, that great flat expanse poking into the English Channel. Jarman’s landscape paintings have a receding flatness and emptiness. You can imagine the lighthouse foghorn and the ominous klaxon from the power station filling these empty painted spaces with sound.

For me, Jarman’s best works are his books, his garden and his last film, Blue, a work that, broaching the sublime, is simplicity itself, a screen on which nothing happens, but the static blueness. Your ears do all the visualising, and all the projecting is your own. The blue is filled with voices, memories and tart, wistful and mordant observations. Whatever the difficulties and inconsistencies, it is good to return to Jarman, an exemplary artist and man, and a model of the creative life.

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