Derek Jarman: Life As Art
You say to the boy open your eyes
When he opens his eyes and sees the light
You make him cry out. Saying
O Blue come forth
O Blue arise
O Blue ascend
O Blue come in
Jarman was born Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman in Northwood, Middlesex, boarded at Canford School in Dorset, and from 1960 studied at King’s College London. This was followed by four years at the Slade School of Art, University College London. He had a studio at Butler’s Wharf, London, and was part of the Andrew Logan social scene in the 1970s. Jarman was outspoken about homosexuality, his never-ending public fight for gay rights, and his personal struggle with AIDS.
On 22 December 1986, Jarman was diagnosed as HIV positive, and discussed his condition in public. His illness prompted him to move to Prospect Cottage, Dungeness in Kent, near the nuclear power station. In 1994, he died of an AIDS-related illness in London,1 aged 52. He is buried in the graveyard at St. Clements Church, Old Romney, Kent.
Jarman first became known as a stage designer, getting his break in the film industry as production designer for Ken Russell’s The Devils (1970). He later made his debut in “overground” narrative filmmaking with the groundbreaking Sebastiane (1976), arguably the first British film to feature positive images of gay sexuality, and the first film entirely in Latin.
He followed this with the film many regard as his first masterpiece, Jubilee (shot 1977, released 1978), in which Queen Elizabeth I of England is transported forward in time to a desolate and brutal wasteland ruled by her twentieth century namesake. Jubilee was arguably the first UK punk movie, and among its cast featured punk groups and figures such as Wayne County of Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, Jordan, Toyah Willcox, and Adam and the Ants.
During the 1980s Jarman was still one of the few openly gay public figures in Britain and was a leading campaigner against Clause 28. He also worked to raise awareness of AIDS. His artistic practice in the early 1980s reflected these commitments, perhaps most famously in The Angelic Conversation (1985), a film in which the imagery is accompanied by a voice reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets, obviously chosen for their openness to a homoerotic re-reading.
By the time of his 1993 film Blue, Jarman was losing his sight and dying of AIDS-related complications. Blue consists of a single shot of saturated blue colour filling the screen, as background to a soundtrack composed by Simon Fisher Turner, and featuring original music by Coil and other artists, in which Jarman describes his life and vision. When it was shown on British television, Channel 4 carried the image whilst the soundtrack was broadcast simultaneously on BBC Radio 3, a collaborative project unique for its time.
Ataxia — AIDS is Fun (1993)
The title of this work, Ataxia, refers to the loss of physical control experienced by the artist when his illness attacked his central nervous system. Its brightly coloured thick surface is the result of the paint having been spread directly with the fingers after the deterioration of Jarman’s eyesight.
Derek Jarman’s installation at Third Eye Centre, Glasgow 1989
Short Films not on MUBI:
Electric Fairy (now lost)
—1970 – 1973
At Low Tide
Herbert in NYC
New York City
Dinner and Diner
Andrew Logan Kisses the Glitterati
Beyond the Valley of The Garden of Luxor Revisited
Ula’s fete (Ula’s Chandalier)
Burning of Pyramids
Bill Gibbs Show
Cafe in Tooley Street
My Very Beautiful Movie
The Kingdom of Outremer
The Devils at the Elgin (a.k.a Sister Jean of the Angels)
Gerald Plants a Flower
Gerald Takes a Photo
Sloan Square: A Room of ones Own (74-76)
Corfe Film (a.k.a Troubadour Films)
Picnic at Ray’s/Rae’s (a.k.a Lunch at Ray’sRae’s)
Karl at Home
Portrait and Breakfast at Swanage
Sea of Storm
Art and the Pose
Art of Mirrors (3 screen version)
The Sea of Storms (a.k.a Kingdom)
Every Woman for Herself and all for Art
Jean Marc Makes a Mask
Pontormo and Punks at Santa Croce
Steven and Mark
Ken’s First Film
Diese Machine Ist Mein Anithumanistiches Kunstwerk
Waiting for Waiting for Godot
“And we end in deathly grey. The elephant is too large to hide itself, and the rhino too angry. The old grey goose will not become the silver foxes dinner. Grey is the sad world, into which the colours fall, like inspiration, sparkle and are overwhelmed — grey is the tomb, a fortress, from which none return.”
‘Oh rainbow colour, please wash away, the grey in my life, the grey of the day. Squall heard this wish, and there and then, blew him away, to the rainbows end, where on the ground, lay a lustrous shell, rainbow bright mother of pearl. Opaline pearl, moonstone bright, petrol on puddles, and shimmering bubbles, Mother of Pearl is my delight.” —-from ’Chroma’, his joyful, incantory, pagan ode to the mysteries of colour, published the year before he died.
Derek Jarman put his life into his art, and was one of the most innovative and controversial British film-makers of his era. There will never be another artist quite like him. His work was ‘collaborative, irreverent, not afraid to embody high art and visually daring. Film as it is meant to be: breaking borders, transgressive, challenging.’
“This is what I miss, there being no more Derek Jarman films:
Simon Fisher Turner’s music
the real faces
the bad temperedness
the good temperedness
-- Tilda Swinton
I urge you to take the time to delve into Jarman’s world, if you haven’t done so already.