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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Dear dead Derek Jarman, how much we need you now

A review of an exhibition by - of all people, Brian Sewell - hit me hard in the stomach with the realisation that next week it will be 20 years since Derek Jarman died.

As a gay art historian who knows everyone in the art world of London over the past 70 years,  Sewell is a perfectly valid reviewer of this anniversary exhibition - Derek Jarman: Pandemonium - at King's College, London University - where Jarman was a student, way back.

Odd to think he started out in 1962 taking a BA General in humanities.

King's describes it as an "immersive exhibition that celebrates the life and work of this truly innovative and multi-faceted artist" With much trepidation I starred to read the review, sensing that Sewell, of that pre-gay generation of gentleman homosexuals, was chalk to Jarman's extra-strong cheese.

Also, one suspects that Jarman's art is a rather easy target for this rigorous critic. Jarman was an artist, but maybe his talent never found its perfect medium, although he created some beautiful, wonderful and memorable stuff on the way. Or maybe that he sacrificed (scarified) his god-given "career" in the English arts world for the gay cause.

In fact, Sewell's review (in the Evening Standard) is commendably restrained, even generous in certain areas (but not others!)

 He does not unleash the verbal hell he so often inflicts on his contemporaries.  He leaves that damning by faint praise to others. He quotes the film reviewer who said Jarman's work mainly amounted to a lot of "significant mischief" - and the archduke of British film, Lord Goldcrest of the Chariots, David Puttnam, who apparently observed that Jarman would probably never have to bother himself about the Oscars.

As an older gay man occupying a lonely niche high up in the vaulting of the English arts world of the 1970s, you wonder what Sewell thought of this hugely personable figure who emerged from the alternative art-squatter scene pod the 70s to become the UK's best-known radical artist-turned set designer turned film-maker.

Having thrilled art movie buffs with the sets he designed for Ken Russell's The Devils,  Jarman went on to make the first, but also the strangest and best feature about UK punk - Jubilee.

This, and his weirdly beautiful version of The Tempest, are not mentioned in Sewell's review, which is odd as they are often thought of as his most successful films.

Nor does Sewell have much to say about Jarman's extensive writing, which I think is probably his most enduring achievement. Dancing Ledge is  a touching and hugely enjoyable memoir. His infectious enthusiasms come across vividly in his books about colour (Chroma), his garden, his politics, his film-making. Even when he going blind and knew  death was close, there was a generous spirit at the heart of everything he wrote - even when he was slagging off some enemy.
Derek Jarman on the cover of one his last books, Chroma, a series of essays about colour .

He could write, he did write. He also painted and gardened and - by his own account - still had time and energy to spare for a hyperactive sexual and social existence in that now impossibly distant world, the London alternative arts scene of the 70s and early 80s.

Having been part of the late 60's counter culture scene, the Balls Pond Road set, David Medalla's the exploding galaxies and so on, Jarman seemed to be on the highbrow edge of the hippie scene. You imagined him smoking reefers with Robert Graves and Kevin Ayers on Ibitha, but I doubt if that ever happened.

Then came his agit-prop phase, which was more than a phase - it was the rest of his life. It was one which led naturally into the climax of all his work - from squatting in Butler's wharf, and being woken up one morning buy Pier Paolo Pasolini filming Canterbury Tales in its original location, to his roles in there Alternative Miss World,  the anti-Section 28 movement, AIDS awareness, forcible outing of gay celebs - you name it, Jarman was there at the front.

And still making movies - lots of them, through the 80s and early 90s. Caravaggio, The Last of England; the movies that enjoyed much more cult adulation than financial success, but which did launch the careers of some well known actors, Tilda Swinton and among them.

I didn't know him, I wished I had. Wandering around the Charing Cross Road area at that time you half expected to bump into him or catch a glimpse, and often you would. He was famously friendly and apparently unaffected, loved chatting to his fans at favourite cafes in and around Soho.

Sewell predicts this will the last major celebration of a Jarman anniversary. He may well be right, but
that to me is more of a damning verdict on the fashion-driven wolf-pack nature of the media who seem to regulate these things, than of the worth of the artist.

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