PRINT November 2019


Derek Jarman, Journey to Avebury, 1971, Super 8, color, silent, 13 minutes 29 seconds.

TOWARD THE END OF HIS LIFE—with little time and energy left—Derek Jarman returned to painting in a spirit of vigorous, vehement urgency. Cinema had long been the celebrated center of Jarman’s art. From the mid-1970s to the early ’90s, he was, arguably, Britain’s most venturesome big-screen poet: a cultivated, risk-taking pioneer of punk and queer film. But painting had also been important to Jarman since he was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, in the ’60s, fitfully recurring as an artistic compulsion in conjunction with the collaborative pressures of filmmaking and the contemplative pleasures of writing and gardening, all of which he approached, at different times, with unbounded, exploratory zeal. (Describing the cherished garden at Prospect Cottage, his coastal retreat on the beach at Dungeness in Kent, he might have been elaborating a personal creative manifesto: “There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon.”) Early paintings were refined, sincere, respectably strange. The strict, clean-lined visual fields of his “Avebury Series,” 1973—austere, abstracted studies of Neolithic standing stones, made as postscripts to his experimental Super 8 film Journey to Avebury (1971)—are beautifully disciplined compositions, emblematic of an ongoing, uneasy fascination with the spaces and silences of the English landscape. A decade later, with a trio of pathbreaking feature films under his belt—Sebastiane (1976), Jubilee (1978), and The Tempest (1979)—Jarman developed a style that was looser, less cautious, boldly evoked in works ranging from enigmatic exercises in Symbolist figuration to the monumental, semiabstract maps of Britain of GBH, 1983–84: a suite of six geologically dense oil-on-newspaper-on-canvas paintings made for a 1984 exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. The context for GBH, and for much that would follow, was the 1983 reelection of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. (Historian Michael Charlesworth points out that Jarman’s exhibition opened on the eve of the miners’ strike, a pivotal moment in modern British history.) The ominous acronym GBH, Jarman said, could mean “whatever you want it to: grievous bodily harm, great British horror, gargantuan bloody H-bomb,” but either way, it signaled anguish and anger over the political violence being wrought by Thatcher’s government. What GBH did not quite anticipate was the bodily harm, the bodily horror, that would soon dominate Jarman’s own life.

Words in Jarman’s late paintings are not stable, either in their appearance or in their meanings.

Derek Jarman, Queer, 1992, oil on canvas, 99 × 70 1⁄2". From the series “Queer,” 1992–93.

Jarman received his diagnosis—his death sentence—in 1986. At the time, of course, HIV could not be managed. Everywhere, at frightening speed, Jarman’s friends were dying: “all the brightest and the best trampled to death,” he wrote in 1989. The illness arrived just as he found sudden, sustaining love with a new partner—Keith Collins, his closest companion and devoted caregiver to the end—making the affliction’s out-of-the-blue brutality seem all the more cruel. Cruel too was the press coverage of aids, the ubiquitous public bigotry, the callous neglect by politicians. As Jarman became an outspoken, high-profile campaigner for gay rights—bravely committing to absolute candor about his condition—he also surged ahead with a host of projects (films, books, the Prospect Cottage garden), attempting, as writer Olivia Laing has noted, “to squeeze decades of work into a handful of years.” A period of especially intense sickness in 1990 slowed the surge, darkening his mood and damaging his sight. Afterward, Jarman rallied, reengaging with painting on newly fearless terms. Invited to show his work at Manchester City Art Gallery, Jarman responded with the 1992–93 “Queer” series: a revelatory array of large, lurid canvases, plastered with the sleazy, hysterical front pages of tabloids and lathered with monochrome coats or dense dapplings of thick oil paint. Braying homophobic headlines appear beneath the paintings’ agitated strokes and frenetic smears; but Jarman adds his own words, too: crude, assertive scraps of text, fragmentary slogans, terms of abuse and protest—sarcastic, celebratory—firmly scored and fingered into the paint. “I painted these pictures fast and loose,” he wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue. “I painted these pictures with no hope and wild laughter . . . with half-closed eyes as quickly as possible. With the arrogance of a second childhood.” These are works of convulsive, expressive dissent, forceful outcomes of fast-changing moods. Jarman’s innately puckish humor persists, coexisting with sadness, fury, pain.

Derek Jarman, Fuck Me Blind, 1993, oil on canvas, 98 7⁄8 × 70 1⁄2". From the series “Evil Queen,” 1993.

Words in Jarman’s late paintings are not stable, either in their appearance—set within stormy compositions, the letters are incomplete, overlapping, only just legible—or in their meanings. (In Morphine, he scratches the title into the paint, shadowing it with the unfinished MORPHIN: the word, like Jarman’s suffering body, is transforming, morphing.) The late—very late—painting Fuck Me Blind, 1993, part of the series “Evil Queen,” 1993, shown posthumously at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery in 1994, is as volatile as any of the charged materials Jarman committed to canvas. By the time of its making, much of his strength had gone; he needed help holding brushes and applying paint. His eyes were more than half-closed: His sight was failing. “Thinking blind is quite different to becoming blind,” he had earlier noted, echoing Jorge Luis Borges’s 1977 observation: “The world of the blind is not the night that people imagine.” Blindness, Borges wrote, is “a world of mist . . . vaguely luminous,” “an undefined world from which certain colors emerge.”

Derek Jarman’s six-part suite GBH, 1983–84, oil on newspaper on canvas, each 114 × 95".

Like Borges, Jarman held fast to some stubborn shades. (Blue [1993], his final film, famously concentrates on an unchanging, immersive screen of International Klein Blue.) But patches of the perceived world continued to disappear in degrees of obscurity. “I have lost my sight in a central band,” he concedes in a dejected diary entry. In Fuck Me Blind, the titular exclamation—most often an expression of astonished delight—is feverishly inscribed across a central band of dark strokes and swirls, a black thundercloud, a fearsome mist, above a brighter green-yellow background. The painting is an imposing presence—more than eight feet tall and nearly six feet wide—and the text an emphatic graffiti scrawl at head height, the skinny letters carved repeatedly into the paint, over and into each other, as if these throwaway words, this offhand declaration of amused shock, were something that had to be said, had to be shown. (It is apt, perhaps, given Jarman’s deeply felt faith in friendship and his generously collaborative inclinations as a filmmaker, that these urgent subjective outpourings were, out of necessity, coproduced by assistants, the painterly impact not wholly dependent on the brushstroke’s indexical connection with the artist’s hand.) If there is still wild laughter here—a very English mockery of expressive gravitas, the sweary outburst a travesty of lapidary proclamation—there is also genuine frustration, deep despair, and desperate longing. The painting’s scribbled, all-caps plea, sparingly adorned with tiny bloodred flecks, is excessive and contradictory—a bad-taste joke; a scream of last-ditch desire; a dream, maybe, of violently erotic obliteration: fuck me in a state of blindness (let me be invisible), or fuck me into a state of blindness (make the world invisible). During the hell of his illness, Jarman had, understandably, wished that his “physical self would evaporate, cease.” Right to the end, though, there was unruly energy, worldly affirmation, limitless affection. His final diary entry, dedicated to his partner, dates from Jarman’s last birthday, January 31, 1994: “Birthday. Fireworks . . . True Love.” 

“Derek Jarman: PROTEST!” organized by Seán Kissane, is on view at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, November 15, 2019–February 23, 2020; travels to the Manchester Art Gallery, UK, April 2–August 31, 2020. 

Declan Long is Director of the Art in the Contemporary World graduate program at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin.