Derek Jarman

Richard Salmon Ltd.

Interviewer: Do you see a future?

Derek Jarman: No.

For one who does not conceive of a future, and perhaps cannot, Jarman keeps remarkably busy. Within the last year he has directed his sixth full-length feature film, several rock videos, and one of the ten sections of the new film Aria (each of which is by a different director); had a book published; and mounted this show of 132 paintings from 1986 and ’87. His film The Last of England presents a broken vision of modern civilization, an invocation of a collapsing present by a would-be Blake or Swift. There are bits of family footage (shot by the artist’s father and grandfather), a love story, a pastiche of a royal wedding, and scenes of apocalypse. As visions go, it is both profane and mannered, atmospheric rather than incisive, and a bit too long. The book has the same title as the film and evokes the same mood through snatches of a sort of diary he kept while making the film, interviews, film polemics, fantasy elements, and a strong autobiographical narrative; Jarman growing up amidst stultifying postwar austerity; Jarman nostalgic for the apparent liberties of the ’60s; Jarman remembering his parents; Jarman witness to the quiet spiritual recessions of Thatcherism; Jarman surrounded by cultural bankruptcy and moral hypocrisy; and Jarman the victim of personal tragedy, discovering that he is a carrier of the AIDS virus. Rather than a hopeful emigrant like the one depicted in Ford Madox Brown’s Victorian painting The Last of England, 1855, Jarman has become an internal exile.

His paintings were hung in the manner of a Victorian salon, with the small dark canvases banked in rows on the walls and arranged in eight symmetrical groups. These pictures are memento mori, souvenirs of a lost past and of a present that is quickly becoming obsolete. Jarman is a collagist, embedding an array of found objects in thick, heaving layers of black oil paint—the artist’s flypaper for remnants and asides, and a catchall for his preoccupations. The objects are as various as plumb bobs, calipers, starfish, spiders, and props from his last film, Caravaggio, 1986. Bullet casings can be found juxtaposed with a traveler’s check and a rectangle of broken glass, in God Bless American Express, 1987. Margaret Thatcher’s Lunch, 1987, incorporates blood-red paint streaming from actual cutlery, written over with the words “Grievous Bodily Harm.” In several works, faded calotypes of anonymous sitters and forgotten scenes are fixed under broken glass and torn gold leaf. In others, unrolled condoms float behind written phrases, dirty jokes, and letters to God. The sardonic pleas to God (“Dear God, please make me a queer . . . please send me to Hell . . . you really are being most difficult . . . ”) complement a bitter note to a fundamentalist Manchester police chief, whose unfortunate remarks about AIDS, homosexuals, and the ”cesspit" have led Jarman to write—in paint—a message from the cesspit itself.

There are emotions mired in the paint along with the objects, but not just bile and anger. The symmetrical arrangements of ragtag materials, the gold leaf, the juxtapositions of words, images, and gestures (the glass smashed into the paint, for example) evince a wayward but strong decorative sensibility. It is all Grand Guignol, theatrical, a bit camp, stagey. There’s a mawkish sense of spectacle that lends intrigue to even the slightest works, and a morbid, somewhat coprophagous quality that denies triviality.

Jarman is often accused of repetitiveness and self-indulgence, although he works hard to preempt this. He sees himself, I think, as a visionary artist, or wants to be seen as one. Such copious, unedited talent is deeply suspect in Britain, and his critics are right in some respects. But he demands our indulgence—because he is a visionary without a vision, because visions are no longer bearable.

Adrian Searle