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Wednesday, 23 May 2012
Derek Jarman
John Leighton

John LeightonI first experienced Derek Jarman in the mid eighties. It wasn’t because of the groundbreaking films like Sebastiane and Jubilee, nor was it his re-imagining of Shakespeare, his version of the Tempest included Toyah Wilcox and liberal amounts of nudity which seemed important at the time (I was deep into my adolescence!) No, I discovered Derek Jarman because Caravaggio’s paintings looked like film stills!

I was at the beginning of what was to prove a diverting if eventually fruitless art education and those early days were peppered with art history lessons which seemed a deadening extension of the curriculum you wanted to escape. I now leaf through my tattered edition of Gombrich with fondness, but at the time endless examinations of renaissance perspective very rarely caught the imagination, although we did enjoy Bellini’s fuzzy felt period.

But then the lesson arrived at Caravaggio, some 500 years old and yet the drama and impact were as immediate as when they were first unveiled to an unsuspecting Milanese audience. This was more like it and right at the moment I discovered Caravaggio, Jarman’s film was released.By far the most accessible and commercial of his films it was never the less and work of an accomplished artist and film maker. Each frame was designed to capture the atmosphere and intensity of a Caravaggio painting and while the themes Jarman highlighted were chosen to compliment his own interests, the overall film was to me, very satisfying.

Not surprisingly I had encountered Jarman at the height of his exposure to the wider world. Sebastiene and Jubilee had established Jarman as a film maker capable of pushing both political and artistic boundaries. Caravaggio and the elegiac ‘Last of England’ gave him some commercial recognition but his exposure to the public conscious had as much to do with his outspoken views on gay rights and his own very public fight against Aids as it did his artistic output. He was everywhere, chat shows, late night discussions on channel 4, directing pop videos and opera, and then there was the Garden.

Towards the end of his life Jarman lost his sight, his breathtaking film ‘Blue’, is a treatise on Jarman’s life and art and a very immediate response to the loss of a sense. He also wrote a book, ‘Chroma’ which expanded on these themes through this failing prism.

Chroma displays an acceptance and peace in an almost meditative narrative. For a glimpse of the Artist as more angry and driven, his journals that accompany the film, Last of England, published by the university of Minnesota press as ‘Kicking the pricks’ is a shockingly honest account of a man squaring up to taboo, censorship  and his fast and loose life. One of the themes running through these journals are Jarman’s father, the ‘classic fag’s father’ as he is described. These glimpses of autobiography leaves one a little disappointed that he was unable or unwilling to leave us with more.


Occasionally you find yourself holding a weighty biography and wonder how one life could fill so many pages. Tony Peake was and continues to be Derek Jarman’s literary agent and his biography of Jarman is a fair old size. There’s no padding here though, anyone wishing to get an insight into this remarkable man and remarkable life will find this the perfect accompaniment for a journey with the artist and the man. (Derek Jarman by Tony Peake, Minnesota University Press, £18.50)

Also Available to 

buy at Nottingham Contemporary:

Derek Jarman’s Garden by Derek Jarman and Howard Sooley, Thames and Hudson, £16.95
Chroma by Derek Jarman, Minnesota University Press, £11.95
Kicking the Pricks by Derek Jarman, Minnesota University Press, £14.99
Derek Jarman by Michael Charlesworth, Reaktion Press, £10.9


Jubilee will be screened at 7pm on Tuesday the 5th of June. Find out more and book a place here.

Posted by at 16:57


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