Celebrating Jarman

3rd February 2014

To King’s College London on Saturday for the symposium Early Modern Jarman. This was a contribution to the excellent Jarman 2014 celebration of the life and work of the filmmaker, artist and activist Derek Jarman who died from AIDS-related illness on 19 February 1994. Among much else, the day offered the chance to see Pandemonium, an exhibition in the Inigo Rooms at Somerset House, which remains open (and is free) until 9 March. There are other events in the coming weeks including Queer Pagan Punk: Derek Jarman, an extensive films retrospective at BFI Southbank (including The Last of England, 1998, above). And specifically related to the themes of the symposium is a screening on 28 February of Jarman’s 1991 film Edward II in St Nicholas Church, Deptford. The church is the resting place of Christopher Marlowe, author of Edward II and the focus also this year of anniversary celebrations, Marlowe450.

What more to say about a creator who seems as significant now as ever? For while there may have been some political progress across the past two decades (although, of course, see the Sochi-related response of writers to Russia’s anti-gay legislation) and while British cinema is commercially more vital than it was then, there is no-one producing screen-based work as provocative and as wildly imaginative and as passionate as Derek Jarman did through the 1980s and early 1990s. The spaces in television for his kind of bold experiments have been squeezed shut, and there are few if any artists working with confidence as he did with painting, texts and film, not to mention architecture and gardening.

Let me offer only a note of appreciation about the King’s symposium and show. Early Modern Jarman was engaged with the artist’s lifelong engagement with early modern drama and culture in his films, sets designs, art and writing. This proved to be a fertile focus, and I particularly appreciated contributions from the University of Calgary’s Jim Ellis, author of Derek Jarman’s Angelic Conversations, 2009, and Pascale Aebischer from the University Exeter. Pascale is the author of Screening Early Modern Drama: Beyond Shakespeare, 2013, which is an excellent study of films, including Jarman’s Edward II, drawn from plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

Pandemonium is a modest but delightful exhibition, drawing together a number of paintings and stage designs from a c. 1960 Self Portrait onwards, as well as examples from the artist’s Sketchbooks, excerpts from which have recently been published by Thames & Hudson, as this video shows:

Jarman’s 8mm shorts Studio Bankside, 1970-2, and Death Dance, 1973, are both projected in the show, around which you can wander with headphones playing a soundtrack of music from Hildegard von Bingen, Coil, Cyclobe and Simon Fisher Turner. And in the final room The Last of England plays on five screens, for each of which the film has started at a different point. I thought this fragmentation was a particularly smart way of presenting a lengthy feature film in an exhibition context.

One other delight was the special twenty-four hour screening, organised by director, author and performer Neil Bartlett, of Jarman’s film The Angelic Conversation, 1985. This was presented in the completely extraordinary King’s College chapel, which was designed by George Gilbert Scott in the late nineteenth century, and the existence of which I had no idea. The film was projected in the aisle on a bed-sheet, about which Bartlett wrote rather beautifully in the hand-out:

The bed-sheet is in homage to the bedspread from Prospect Cottage that Derek used to clothe Christ in his film The Garden, and to the grubby linens that doubled as Roman draperies in Caravaggio (he got that idea, of course, from another master of queer improvisation, the painter Caravaggio himself). It also stands for every bed I ever slept in during the 1980s – when I was nineteen and twenty – watching Derek’s films on Channel 4 on the nights I felt arty, and Fassbinder all-nighters up at the Scala at King’s Cross when I wanted to be sure of finding somebody to go home with once the lights went up.

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