The great tension in Derek Jarman’s work lies between the romantic and the radical. Born in 1942, his imagination was haunted by the idea of imminent apocalypse, erupting into such works as Jubilee (1978): a portrait of an anarchic, burnt-out Britain. Yet growing up in 1950s Kent, he was also imbued with an indelible Englishness: a complicated longing for a prelapsarian idyll – befitting, only perhaps, of the son of a man named Lancelot.
Jarman’s oeuvre is both elegiac and angry, full of rage and sensuality: a hymn for a lost England that may have never existed in the first place. As a gay man railing against the punitive status quo of Thatcher’s Britain, there was a sense that tradition had to be destroyed for its own salvation.
After being diagnosed with HIV in 1986, Jarman found sanctuary in the garden he planted at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness: an oasis in the shadow of a nuclear power station, where he lived until the months before his death in 1994. Comprised of 12 works made from 1989–90, ‘Shadow Is the Queen of Colour’ at Amanda Wilkinson Gallery is a reliquary of the artist’s memories from this period: a trove of found objects encased in paint. With an eye ever turned towards a jolting marriage of the sacred and the profane, Flesh Tint (1990) features pink impasto (perhaps recalling his beloved grandmother’s peach living room) holding a cameo of Christ, overlaid with a used condom. Below this perverted locket, three bullets are pressed into the paint. It’s an image that’s both kitschily provocative and genuinely shocking, especially in light of the Catholic Church’s ongoing homophobia.
In Matthew Mark Luke and John (1989), a canvas is washed with a campy shade of Vatican gold: a sly pun on the obvious connotations of gilt/guilt. Like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol, Jarman refashioned his Christian upbringing as a mode of queer iconoclasm. (He also directed the video for Pet Shop Boys’ bombastic disco anthem to sexual rebellion, It’s a Sin, 1987.) The gospel-writing apostles of the title are linked together in sexual communion; a scroll behind glass is inscribed with one of Jarman’s poems: ‘Matthew fucked Mark fucked Luke fucked John’. The work becomes a requiem, not only for the lives cruelly lost to AIDS (‘Holding the hands of dead friends/Old age came quickly for my frosted generation’) but also for a vanished future.
In the remaining works, clots of black tar, thick as oil spills, enshrine pieces of detritus, much of which Jarman scavenged from the Dungeness shore. A bullwhip, crucifixes, bibles and scrolls of barbed wire all bear the familiar symbols of institutionalized oppression, evoking Jarman’s 1990 film The Garden, in which the Passion is reimagined as the embattled story of two gay lovers. But there’s brittle glory, too: in Untitled (Ship in Bottle) (1989), the skeleton of a miniature ship shimmers from a shattered bottle like slivers of gold.
In Battle of Britain (1989), a toy plane lies suspended in the canvas, evoking the shadow of Jarman’s own forbidding, RAF serviceman father. In Untitled (Clothes) (1989), black-and-white photographs freezing family scenes are scattered around scrunched garments. A dusting of bird down literalizes the ‘tarring and feathering’ of homophobic tabloids from this era: the reactionary establishment that Jarman dedicated his life – and art – to railing against.
Derek Jarman,‘Shadow Is the Queen of Colour’ runs at Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London, until 22 June 2019.
Main image: Derek Jarman, Matthew Mark Luke and John (detail), 1989, oil and mixed media on canvas, 36 × 25 cm. Courtesy: Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London, and Keith Collins Will Trust
First published in Issue 205