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Protesting and sublime.

Review:  Derek Jarman at IMMA.

By Noelle English.

Derek Jarman was a bombshell in the 1980s.  As an artist, filmmaker and gay activist, he made music videos for The Smiths, Marc Almond, The Pet Shop Boys and others.  His film ‘Jubilee’’s representation of punk so outraged Vivienne Westwood, one of its progenitors, that she designed a t-shirt in protest.  In the face of tabloid homophobia, he worked to educate and normalise the discourse about gay sex. He won Alternative Miss World in 1975 and was the first public figure to openly battle HIV and at a time when AIDS patients were still vilified and feared.  

The most surprising thing about the PROTEST! exhibition of Jarman’s work currently showing at IMMA is that the artist’s fame as filmmaker and as activist is outweighed by the sublime impact of his lesser-known paintings.  In an interview with John Cartwright shortly before his death, Jarman said that he was a painter first and a filmmaker by accident:

I never thought of myself as a film director I have to say that.  Canvasses are much more private and it was great to paint but every now and again it was more fun to have a lot of people around and so the element of having a party in my filmmaking is very important and anyone would come along and I would try to give them a good day.  It’s happy work.

The quiet beauty of his 1960s geometric landscapes of Avebury Henge testifies to this painterly instinct.  These contrast dramatically with his series of Black Paintings from the early 1980s when, in the face of Thatcherism, Jarman’s anger and defiance explode through the widespread use of black pigment, this time over gold leaf to create a chiaroscuro effect in an explicit celebration of his sexuality.  His scathing rejection of homophobia and his campaign to educate the public about homosexuality is exquisitely articulated in NRLA (Third Eye) Installation where we see a buoyant Jarman leading the audience through his own 1989 exhibition in Glasgow.

Most remarkable and moving, however, are the ‘Slogan Paintings’ which were commissioned by the Manchester Art Gallery in 1993, when Jarman was very ill and almost blind.  Here, we see a merging of  art as public protest with the artist’s private reflections on suffering and mortality.  Language and meaning are sublimely brought together in this tactile series of paintings, with each painting’s title scrawled across its surface.  Luscious, fingered swirls of white paint over red in ‘Infection’ are an eloquent depiction of the body under attack. 

 There are angry, hacking scratches of black and red paints over a series of tabloid pages in ‘Morphine’, playful daubs of green and blue in ‘Dizzy Bitch’, a romantically naïve heart-shape outlined over the title of ‘Queer’, and a bitterly ironic joke driven home in the repeatedly overwritten ‘Fuck Me Blind’.   In the iconic painting ‘Death’, a cross and circle create an archetypal form with words partially hidden underneath its layers of paint, as painter and sloganeer find equilibrium.  

In the interview with Cartwright, Jarman said that he was too sick to make any more films and with a sad dignity had resolved to spend the rest of his life painting landscapes.

I am much happier painting now.  Karl and I can sit in this room which is a very nice room.  The paintings are just as interesting as the films so it’s not as if one’s taking second best.

Derek Jarman PROTEST!, Irish Museum of Modern Art until February 23rd.