We open the doors of Imma’s West Wing and staring at us is Self Portrait (1959), a painting of a young boy lit softly in a dark entrance. In the background, a man’s voice leads us towards a dark space playing Blue (1993), a projected film created by Derek Jarman shortly before his death in 1994. The blue-washed screen, textured by the audio, feels like a lament. The dialogue sounds like a diary of illness reinterpreted by multiple voices, as orchestral music accentuates emotional rises. We are immediately invested in the artist’s life and in his work.
The hallway is brightly lit, holding large canvasses with two-dimensional landscapes. These collages include geometrical representations of landscapes and photographic images that seem symbolic of spiritual development — one being a pool of water, another a crow.
Particularly interesting is the Avebury Series, which includes several canvasses and one of Jarman’s earliest film pieces: a super 8 short, A Journey to Avebury (1971). This film, produced in home-video technology, introduces a certain tension to the series. It is a first-person depiction of a walk to the Avebury stone circles, a Neolithic henge monument. Photographs of the rocks are embedded into the canvasses within clean geometrical landscapes and the film — slow, scratched and dirty — expands the narrative to include the spiritual mystery of the site.
This cross-disciplinarity was a feature of Jarman’s practice, as we see throughout this exhibition — a retrospective of one of the most influential figures in late 20th-century British culture. Though primarily a film-maker, Jarman used multiple media to express his messages.
By the end of the first hallway, we start to understand the story of light and darkness being told in Protest! Throughout the exhibition we alternate between well-lit spaces, and darkened alcoves showing Jarman’s acclaimed film work. The subject matter grows darker as we progress.
Room 8 is our first encounter with Jarman’s gloomier visual-artist side, showing work created in the early 1980s. Here, night is for nightlife, sleep is akin to death. Most of these paintings are dark compositions with brighter sections made of exposed gold leaf. This stark contrast is in tune with the works’ subject matter of seeking life and fearing death.
Particularly interesting is Andy — The name of the Bow is Life, but its Work is Death (1982), a relatively muted piece showing a young boy holding a sword and with a skull placed in front of him. This piece is a reference to Heraclitus’s musings about the meaning of the word “bow” being life but its function being to bring death.
Right outside this space are two more black paintings in which the choice of material is more expressive. These were painted a few years later, after Jarman was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1986. They are a turning point in Jarman’s paintings, the emphasis changing from reflection to protest. One of the pieces, Margaret Thatcher’s Lunch (1987), is a composition of turbulent, thick black oil paint with red-stained knife and fork laid out flanking a rusted burnt and tangled mass of wire, and the scribbled words “promise” and “GBH”. This followed the passing of section 28 in May 1988, a legal amendment prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality”, effectively banning being queer. As an activist, Jarman protested this legislation, and as an artist he created artwork representing life as a queer person and encounters with homophobia and exclusion.
The final room of the exhibition is named Prospect Cottage, after Jarman’s residence during his last years. As his protests against the treatment of the LGBTQ community grew more urgent, so did Jarman’s expansion into materials that were symbolic of the betrayal he was experiencing from society and his own body. Everyday objects are drowned and splattered with tar to create explicitly political, medical and religious symbolic compositions.
One of the strongest pieces is Leviticus (1989), in which the tar engulfs a Bible and a crucifix with a piece of driftwood, all wrapped in twisted barbed wire. The book of Leviticus appeared in Jaman’s practice due to its explicit sexual passages. Jarman borrowed objects considered to be symbols of conservative beliefs and drowned them in tar, a figurative act of punishment and humiliation.
Protest! is an important document of art history, as it exhibits the practice of an exceptional artist who lived through one of Britain’s most contentious eras.
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