Queer magic and the rage of Derek Jarman


The drag queen stumbles to the ground, her high heels and tight dress no wardrobe for a girl fleeing a lynching. The women fall on top of her, pull her dress and hair, taunt her, while the photographers, their faces masked like guerrillas, aim their cameras with lascivious delight.

Shot by Derek Jarman as part of his 1990 film The garden, today’s scene is both vintage and premonitory. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to suppress the discussion of gay lives, Article 28, which entered into force in 1988, is no longer today. But the battle over LGBT + identity is more intense than ever.

Jarman’s gift of being timeless and timely, a man of his moment and one for all seasons, ensures that two simultaneous shows – one in Manchester, one in Southampton – will woo 21st century audiences with the shimmering and perilous art of their subject. Today, Jarman is mostly remembered as a filmmaker but, 27 years after his death from AIDS at the age of 52, it is a pleasure to remember that he was also a painter, writer, set designer, gardener and valiant political activist.

Tilda Swinton in ‘Caravaggio’ (1986) © Landmark Media

For those of us old enough to have jumped on its pop arty videos or been mesmerized by the alluring, dangerous and changing realms offered by feature films such as Storm (1979) and Caravaggio (1986), reuniting is an invigorating joy. For a younger generation, it’s a glimpse of an old-fashioned analogue Eden, its grainy pulse unmistakably tainted by the elegant aggressiveness of online culture but still incandescent with the desire for radical change.

In terms of volume, the larger of the two exhibitions is at the Manchester Art Gallery. Entitled Derek Jarman: Protest! and edited in collaboration with the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, it brings together a vast body of paintings as well as theatrical drawings, pop videos and films while highlighting the activism that included his decision, in 1987, to become one of the first British public figures to testify to HIV.

A woman in an elaborate orange dress with a headdress walks next to a man in casual clothes
Elisabeth Welch and Derek Jarman on the set of “The Tempest” (1979) © Boyd’s Company / Alamy

Presented in the first rooms, the first paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, when Jarman was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, draw inspiration from a multitude of styles ranging from Paul Nash to abstract expressionism. Few clues to the fires accumulated within the intelligent and intense young man forced to live undercover in a society where his sexuality was criminal until 1967. But there is a formidable self-portrait from 1958, based on an earlier image by Wyndham Lewis, who uses Cubist Fundamentals to portray Jarman as a skinny seer with red eyes bubbling with fury on the Via Dolorosa that awaits us.

Derek Jarman, 'Self Portrait' (1958)

Derek Jarman, ‘Self-portrait’ (1958) © Ros Kavanagh

While most of Jarman’s paintings lack the voltaic charge that ignites his films, it’s exciting to see how he expresses himself in the medium. The hermetic and semi-geometric landscapes of the late 1960s and 1970s bear witness to Jarman’s fascination with a pre-Christian pastoral kingdom: standing stones, ley lines, pagan deities. Throughout his career, Jarman was fascinated by mysticism and magic, especially alchemy, which he viewed as gateways to more exciting and open worlds.

But his imagination, with its tendency for visual collage, was best served by the moving image. In 1970, he adopted the film Super 8 – a basic pre-video format – which allowed him to slow down, speed up and overlay images. Always a makeshift and impromptu mage, Jarman needed no more to create his demonic and enchanted dystopias.

Several people dance naked, seen obscurely through orange and green filters

Extract from “In the shade of the sun” by Derek Jarman (1981) © Fondation Luma

A ballerina dances next to a bonfire

A photo from ‘Jordan’s Dance’ (1977) © Luma Foundation

In Manchester, his Super 8 shorts include In shadow of the sun (1981) and Jordan’s dance (1977). Said to be the inspiration behind Jubilee, the feature film he shot the same year, Jordan’s dance shows an androgynous punk ballerina in a crisp white tutu twirling around a bonfire in a post-industrial wasteland. In breathtaking 16 minutes, Jarman delivers the vision – love and death, cruelty and compassion, contamination and purity locked in deadly combat in an abandoned and purgatory England – that will become his signature.

View filtered in orange on a country road
Extract from the Super 8 film “Journey to Avebury” (1971) © Luma Foundation

In the late 1980s, when he rose up against a society determined to view AIDS as a punishment from God, his paintings took on a raging fury. Newspapers printed with the word “Dirt” are stuck on a canvas scribbled with the word “Morphine”. Multimedia works known as assemblages force crucifixes and rosaries to share space with used condoms and thorny twigs.

Although he is an avowed atheist, God and his evil twin are all over Jarman’s work. Rare is the movie or video without a bunch of hellfire. (Jarman called his art “fire poetry … bright and oblique.”) Even the concert recordings and pop videos he made for musicians such as the Pet Shop Boys, the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith and the fascinating but forgotten Easterhouse are haunted. by suffering saints and sadistic priests.

Three men in Santa Claus costumes film two men huddled in their bed

Extract from “The Garden” by Derek Jarman (1990) © Liam Daniel / Basilisk Communications

Jarman made no secret of the fact that he did the music concerts for money, and even handed them over to needy young colleagues. Whoever they’ve created, these anarchic, angry and uplifting mishmash of song and picture, audible in every gallery, is an electrifying soundtrack to the Manchester Odyssey.

Jarman’s many sidelines – the pop videos, mercurial costumes and sets for directors such as Frederick Ashton and Ken Russell, the images that document her victory as Miss Crêpe Suzette in the Alternative Miss World in 1975 – are a revealing window on the dilettantish, Dantesque disconnections that he had in mind. No wonder his films are both wet dreams and nightmares, fertile visual jungles where innocence and sin feed off each other to nurture new forests of possibility.

The silhouette of a man on a blue background
From ‘Blue’ (1993), Derek Jarman’s swan song © Liam Daniel / Basilisk Communications

Blue, performed in 1993 when Aids was making Jarman blind, was his shocking and exquisite swan song. He has no image: just a fixed blue screen through which Jarman chants an elegy for all that has been lost, loved and fought for. “I’m in a blue funk. . . blue flashes in my eyes. The blue of my dreams, the slow blue hours, the delphinium days. Towards the end, as Jarman rests in his hospice, the social warrior asserts himself: “Charity has made it possible for the insensitive to seem to care. . . Charity is big business. The rich and the powerful have fucked us. . . ”

Go to BlueThe hypnotic allure of is realizing that Jarman was right when he warned his audiences, decades before digitization, to beware of an “image pandemonium.”[s]”. Still, it wouldn’t have worked if Jarman hadn’t been a writer as shrewd as a director, able to cut-and-paste his sublime and incendiary lyrics with the same skill that he showed in his films.

Someone wears punk makeup and a blond mohican

From ‘Jubilee’ (1977) © Megalovision / Alamy

Jarman was an art of friction. Of this and that, of hope and despair, of agony and ecstasy, of shock and fear with a soup of sweetness to help his grainy medicine go down. Its butterfly magic is well served by the smaller and less formal show, Modern Nature by Derek Jarman, at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton, which creates sparks between Jarman and those who came before and followed him.

Considered alongside those of mid-century British neo-Romantic painters such as John Minton, Keith Vaughan and John Piper, Jarman’s early paintings acquire a new resonance. The juxtaposition between Minton’s monochrome drawing of an abandoned town in the moonlight, “Deserted Garrison” (1947) and Jarman’s mixed media study “Study for Landscape (1966), the latter a deep indigo cosmos disturbed by silvery blue and lime green patterns, shows that Jarman shared, in his own way, Minton’s gift for cadenced composition and the less it is more chromatic. Vaughan’s 1950’s small gouache of naked men throwing stones into the sea, “Figure Throwing at a Wave,” whispers the spellbinding wonder of the male form that runs through Jarman’s films, including The garden.

The latter is projected here. A dark love letter to nature and homosexuality, in which angelic boys are pitted against fascist trackbenders, it was carried out in and around Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s beloved home in Dungeness on the Kent coast. It is especially moving to see this heated skirmish between the forces of good and evil just weeks after exhausted migrants stranded on the same part of the shore and are greeted with cries of ‘come home’ and ‘ violator of the law ”by people on the beach.

Jarman tends to his salt tolerant plants at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness

Jarman tends to his salt tolerant plants at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness © Howard Sooley

The specter of Prospect Cottage hangs benevolently over Jarman’s legacy, as does his life. Purchased in 1986, the same year he found out he was HIV positive, the Victorian Fisherman’s Cottage was a unconclusus hortus where he nurtured plants, art, love and friendships. In Southampton there is a series of photographs by Howard Sooley, who spent months with Jarman not only photographing the garden but also creating it. With a crystalline lucidity that accentuates their pathos, Sooley’s images capture Jarman – druid-like and fearless, despite his decline – and the shredded paradise of driftwood carvings and salt-loving flora that Jarman had summoned, at the like a sorcerer, out of the unpromising pebbles. .

Also present is Jarman’s handwritten copy of “The Sun Rising” by John Donne, which he kept at Prospect Cottage. “Shine here for us and you are everywhere,writes Donne as he complains about having his date interrupted by the unruly planet. We are lucky that Jarman is disturbing and warming us again.

As of April 10, manchesterartgallery.org; to February 26, jhg.art

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