Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman was an innovative British film maker, painter, video director, left-wing and gay rights activist known for his (often combined) 35 mm and super-8 films, stage and costume designs, writing, political stridency, AIDS awareness actions, and gardening.Read More
The son of a Royal Air Force officer, Jarman studied for a Dip, FA at King's College London (1960—1962) and then Slade School of Fine Arts, University College London (1963—1967), researching painting, theatre design and world cinema. In 1971 he became the set designer for Ken Russell's film The Devils, and the experience encouraged him to make his own projects.
Right from the start Derek Jarman's creative output embraced themes connected to homosexual lifestyles or were anti-establishment.
The artist's early 35 mm film Sebastiane (1976) was about the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a gay icon. Jubilee (1978) used punk musicians to attack the Thatcher government, while other films involved interpretations of Shakespeare's ambiguous plays (The Tempest, 1979) and sonnets (The Angelic Conversation, 1984).
From 1971 onwards, Jarman made over forty 8mm or 16 mm films. Some of these 'home movies' he projected at different speeds and refilmed (and repeated) in video, incorporated later in 35 mm projects.
The support of Channel 4 and BFI enabled Jarman to make Caravaggio (1886), a full length film about the homosexual painter and murderer, with professional actors. It won a Silver Bear at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival.
Jarman then moved into a semi-narrative, less linear, phase. Such works include The Last of England (1987), an elegant and very bleak montage which looked at the decay of British life under Thatcher's economic restructuring, and War Requiem (1989) which examined the poems of Wilfred Owen using the music of Benjamin Britten.
The nineties brought The Garden, 1990, looking at Jarman's life in Prospect Cottage, with his Dungeness garden on a shingly beach, close to a nuclear power station. It features the AIDS epidemic, the activities of a gender-fluid couple, their persecution and murder, and Jarman's awareness of his own HIV related illness.
Jarman also made Edward II (1991), and Wittgenstein (1993)—again with gay themes (one a violent tragedy about a ruler, the other a whimsical comedy about the Austrian philosopher)—and Jarman's last film, Blue (1993) the latter presenting a constant screen of Klein blue accompanying a soundtrack of poems, reminisces and musings, recalling the various lovers and friends the filmmaker has lost—and alluding to the physical impact of AIDs on Jarman himself when he temporarily lost his sight to only see patches of ultramarine.
The acting participants in Jarman's films included a surprising range, from casual aquaintances to polished professionals like Tilda Swinton and Laurence Olivier.
Jarman was a skilled writer. Published anthologies of his essays include Modern Nature (1991); Chroma: A Book of Colour (1993); Smiling in Slow Motion (2000); At Your Own Risk: A Saint's Testament Paperback (1992).
Derek Jarman has been the subject of many solo and group exhibitions.
Recent solo exhibitions include When Yellow Wishes to Ingratiate It Becomes Gold, Amanda Wilkinson Gallery (2021), My Garden's Boundaries Are the Horizon, The Garden Museum, London (2021); Shadow is the Queen of Colour, Amanda Wilkinson Gallery (2019); The Last of England, Amanda Wilkinson Gallery (2017); and Derek Jarman: Brutal Beauty, Serpentine Gallery, London, (2008).
Recent Group Exhibitions include, Protest, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, (2020); Gubbinal, Project Native Informant, London (2019); Mute, Amanda Wilkinson Gallery (2018); Give Up The Ghost, Baltic Triennial 13 (2018).
Jarmen worked on numerous set designs, including that for Jazz Calendar (1968), The Devils (1971), Savage Messiah (1972), and Waiting for Godot (1991).
Musicians Jarman collaborated with include The Smiths, Marianne Faithful, Patti Smith, Bryan Ferry, Throbbing Gristle, The Sex Pistols, Marc Almond, Suede, The Pet Shop Boys, and Bob Geldof.
Derek Jarmen's work is held in important institional collections, including that of Tate Britain, The British Library and BFI National Archive.
John Hurrell | Ocula | 2021