Derek Jarman: Protest! review – ‘Consistency is overrated’ | Art
A film of nothing but a static blue, haunted by voices and the story of a man gone blind, and thinks of buying shoes he will never have the chance to wear – his will allow him to get out of it. Self-portraits of a young man, anxious but finished with the levity of Matisse, and another, sullen and gloomy, seeing himself as Wyndham Lewis. As you watch the Pet Shop Boys sing It’s a Sin, staged for a decadent pop video on the wall, rivaling the industrial electronic noise of Throbbing Gristle leaking from another room.
Creativity is not a buzzword. But one cannot think of Derek Jarman, painter, sometimes set designer, filmmaker, gay activist, writer and gardener, without recognizing his multiple and sometimes contradictory talents. He was both the best known and the most outspoken artist, a hedonist and a city dweller, and an introspective observer of nature, birdsong and sunsets.
Jarman’s enthusiasm and energy, his outspokenness and his curiosity led him to the end. He died of an AIDS-related illness at age 52 in 1994. After being diagnosed with HIV in 1986, Jarman made the decision to speak openly 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 remembrance running through his later work. Jarman counted the losses.
In life, Jarman achieved secular holiness, canonized by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of gay nuns. Since his death, he has become more than an artist of his time. A quarter of a century later, a blue plaque now commemorates what was once his studio on the Thames, and the Art Fund bought its black tarred cottage, with its canary yellow windows, perched on the pebbles of Dungeness Headland, to the nation. Jarman’s seaside garden drifts into the no man’s land of the surrounding landscape. It has no discernible boundaries. Its creator either.
Currently, there is an exhibition of Jarman’s work in Paris, for the city’s Autumn Festival, and a major ensemble exhibition has just opened at the Manchester Art Gallery, originating 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 to glimpse Jarman’s life and work come up against the difficulty of his creativity. He’s done so many things, in so many different ways, always going his own way. The variety of his approaches, the shuttle between introspection and indignation, the radical changes in his tempo and his method during the forty years of his career do not make life easier for either his commissioners or his spectators. There is too much to take in, so many different ways that you have to look.
Derek Jarman: Protest! at the Manchester Art Gallery stages these difficulties, which are in fact the difficulties of the artist himself. Curator Jon Savage met Jarman’s complexity head-on in a theatrical installation in which paintings from the 1950s to early 1990s collide with photography and film, theater design and the images of the ensemble that ‘he designed for the Ken Russell film The Devils. Here’s Margaret Thatcher’s Lunch, the cutlery covered in black paint, the cutlery oozing red, and there’s the prize he won in the Alternative Miss World pageant in 1979, a shapely leg covered in shards of broken mirror. Prospect Cottage wall enlargements and small driftwood and stone carvings rival the songs of the Smiths.
This exhibit, like the lavish publication that accompanies it, and despite some interesting essays, makes Jarman difficult to read consistently. Consistency is probably overrated, and lives don’t live that way anyway. Jarman was, I think, a reactive rather than programmatic artist, responding to 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 lark, the festive atmosphere of its film sets or the blazing gorse in bloom near the Dungeness nuclear power plant.
Everywhere there were miracles – human, botanical, literary, meteorological – and questions of geology, theology or poetry or sex. Atheist, Jarman had an almost Gnostic sense of the spiritual. He could find it anywhere, especially perhaps in the layman, the transient, in the vitality of a dancing body or in the tenacity of a plant life growing in the unlikely and hostile conditions of the shingle it sits on. ‘occupied.
The words, sometimes scrawled in thick paint, sometimes rendered in his distinctive and highly tuned calligraphy, were as important to Jarman as the setting, the spectacle, and the painting. His writing is wonderful, and I keep coming back to Modern Nature, his daily journal from 1989 and 1990. It keeps my feet on the ground. His later small paintings and clumpy assemblages have a brevity similar to his diary entries, with their daily reflections on the weather, local incidents, politics, things found and seen and discovered on the foreshore. Always attentive to the things which surround it, the world adheres to it, they plague against the darkness.
His Super 8 shorts often capture the same fleeting world of people, moments and light. They are all kind of DIY. With their broken glass and morbid black surfaces, their agglomerations made of spent balls and seeds, unrolled condoms that decompose under the glass, a scattering of pills mired in paint, ugly black tarry cloths with bags and tubes medicine, toy skeletons, rosaries and crosses, and a sinister, symmetrical arrangement of pharmaceutical bottles and packaging called One Day’s Medications, all become reliquaries of a life lived. By increasing the scale, he also achieved two series of large-scale abstractions, bubbling and bitter, the paint splashing and smearing on their coagulated and coagulated surfaces. They lift and drag, scream and push back, without a moment’s respite. Weird, they say. Some blood. Infection. Sickness. Weak and half blind, Jarman was as much a director as a painter of these images, and could not achieve them alone. They were deliberately confrontational.
The painter Jarman takes center stage in Manchester, although he is constantly interrupted, notably 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 landscapes of the 70s is a kind of premonition of Dungeness, this large flat expanse which sinks into the English Channel. Jarman’s landscape paintings have a fleeting flatness and emptiness. You can imagine the foghorn of the lighthouse and the ominous horn of the power station filling those empty painted spaces with sound.
For me, Jarman’s best works are his books, his garden and his latest film, Blue, a work which, addressing the sublime, is simplicity itself, a screen on which nothing happens, but static blue. Your ears do all the visualization, and all the projection is yours. The blue is filled with tangy, melancholy and biting voices, memories and observations. Whatever the difficulties and inconsistencies, it is good to come back to Jarman, artist and exemplary man, and model of the creative life.