Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman was born in Northwood, Middlesex, on 31 January 1942. They died in London on 19 February 1994. They were educated at the University of London and at the Slade School of Art. Their first work in the cinema was as a set designer on Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and Savage Messiah (1972). Having begun making their own experimental films on a Super-8 camera in the early 1970s, Jarman’s first feature film was the low budget Sebastiane (co-d. Paul Humfress, 1976), a story about the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, which created a stir in the art cinema market because of its overt depiction of homosexual desire.

Location: Tallinn, Riga
Derek Jarman The Shadow takes on Substance 1988 Oil and mixed media on canvas 35.6 x 25.4 cm / 14 x 10 in. Courtesy The Estate of Derek Jarman and Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London

‘Doesn’t every dark thundercloud have a silver lining? In black lies the possibility of hope… This is no cold black, it is against this black that the rainbow shines like the stars.’ (1) Black is the colour of angst, death, disease; it is the Furies wreaking vengeance by blasting everything to hell with fire. Except there is a silver lining. A gold one, actually. In Derek Jarman’s Black Paintings, a series of assemblage works created largely between 1986 and 1993, it is literally gold (leaf) that is at the bottom of the tar-black, impastoed canvases, their surfaces clotted and weighed down by smashed glass, mirrors, jewels, teeth, rosary beads, thorns, wreaths, washed up junk and flotsam from Jarman’s garden in Dungeness or kitsch paraphernalia picked up in junk shops. ‘Dead souls whisper’ and ‘Death is all things we see awake’ can be faintly read in Dead Man’s Eyes (1987), its broken black surface interrupted by a pair of gold coins, the type that weigh down the eyelids of the dead to stop them from staring back at this decrepit world. Yet underneath it the gold still lies, an alchemical potential. We never see it – Jarman made sure that the gold leaf that covers each canvas is subsumed by the blackness that gives this body of work its name – but in an act of faith we know it’s there.


Obsessively autobiographical, like all of Jarman’s work, the Black Paintings, as well as the film Blue (1993), proclaim a voice that will not be buried alive. It will not be thrown on the scrapheap with all the other voices, the social rejects that refuse to conform and comply with the socially enforced norms of Thatcherite Britain, so high on its own sense of morality. Made at the height of the AIDS crisis and the struggle for queer liberation, and following Jarman’s own diagnosis and coming-out as HIV-positive in 1986, these works nevertheless speak of vitality and life. They are a refusal to give up, to shut up, to just lie down cowering and die. They are an exorcism of anger and emotion. The most baroque and poetically erudite of fuck you’s to the establishment: of family, of religion, of state, of all those who just want to turn a blind eye. They are a memento mori of one’s own existence, of a life not yet undone.


And then we get to Blue, Jarman’s swansong. An account of going blind due to AIDS complications, Blue is the fear induced by the illness; the tedious trips to hospital, IV drips and pills; the voices of friends and lovers, some already forever gone. And throughout it all, being suffused, swimming, floating, drowning in an expanse of the most glorious International Klein Blue that sears itself onto my retina for all of the film’s 79 minutes until I’m engulfed. Refusing to be the fixed image of a martyr. Blue, the colour of transcendence and immateriality, ‘an open door to soul / An infinite possibility / Becoming tangible’.


(1) Derek Jarman, Chroma: A Book of Colour, June ‘93 (Vintage 2000: 1994), p. 138


Anya Harrison