Derek Jarman: PROTEST! Art and activism collide at the Manchester Art Gallery


At the very heart of Manchester city center is the Manchester Art Gallery, a beautiful Greco-Roman façade, housing an amalgamation of oil paintings, watercolours, sculptures and drawings spanning a millennium. After several lockdown-related delays, Derek Jarman: PROTEST! finally opened at the Manchester Art Gallery on 2n/a December 2021, marking the artist and city activist’s first major retrospective collection.

Jarman’s name is one that penetrates every corner and realm of art and culture. A prolific filmmaker, expert videographer, attentive gardener, meticulous stage designer and masterful painter – not to mention an outspoken LGBTQ+ and AIDS activist; it is difficult to compress Jarman’s work and accomplishments into a comprehensive exhibit.

The exhibit is in loose chronological order, tracing Jarman’s journey from his Paul Nash– inspired surreal portraiture to his avant-garde filmmaking and iconoclastic experimentation with mixed media, amalgamating broken glass, bones, coins and general detritus.

Photo: Besanez Group @ WikiMedia Commons

Hanging from the wall is a prosthetic leg, adorned with mirror shards – this served as a trophy to win Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World competition in 1975, an event described by Vincent Dowd as a “pansexual beauty pageant.” Photos of Derek Jarman as Miss Crepe Suzette in the 1975 pageant are on display, with the performer dressed in a stunning dress adorned with silver jewelry and a beaded headdress.

Black and white photographs depict Jarman’s humble beginnings as a set designer for plays such as Don Giovanni and Devilsalongside stills from his adaptation of Storm (1979) and Jarman’s muse, actress Tilda Swintonin his first feature film, Caravaggio (1986). The latter is perhaps his most acclaimed work, but his politically charged piece de resistance England’s Last (1987) prevails.

Openly gay, Derek Jarman worked at a time when Margaret ThatcherThe homophobic laws of Article 28 prohibited the “promotion” of homosexuality. Simply creating, as he did, was an act of defiance, but England’s Last approached these questions without fear. Jarman has worked with Super 8mm film, oscillating between experimental and arthouse.

In a movie theater, an abundance of music videos – all directed by Derek Jarman – play on repeat. He has worked with iconic musicians at all levels, from The Smiths (“The Queen is Dead”, “Panic”, “There is a light that never goes out”, “Ask”) and Sweden (“So Young”), à la Pet Shop Boys (“It’s a Sin”, “Rental”, “Violence”) and Patti Smith (“Memorial Tribute”).

In 1988, Derek Jarman went public that he had been diagnosed with AIDS – outside the exhibition there is a cupboard containing information leaflets from the HIV and AIDS charity, the George House Trust.

His 1993 film Blue is projected into a room: an intense cobalt screen, representative of the deterioration of Jarman’s eyesight following an AIDS-related illness. His words are heard, as he reflects on his remaining days. It’s hard to watch for an extended period – in fact, if you’ll pardon the pun, it’s discordant – and yet that is its purpose.

Another of his films, Jordan’s dance depicts a Swan Lake-style ballerina, pirouetting through the flames, surrounded by union jack flags and observed by a figure with a bag on her head. Below this projection, cases contain Jarman’s personal albums and photo albums.

A series of his disturbing and potentially blasphemous multimedia works are shown combining crucifixes with barbed wire, whips, clocks and feathers. He-Man figurines are glued to canvases next to crushed coke cans and empty blood bags. Each object placed intentionally, juxtapositions of strength and fragility, restriction and freedom.

It’s a true audio-visual experience, evoking the spirit of Derek Jarman, while celebrating his impact. Video footage from his 1989 exhibition at Glasgow’s Third Eye Gallery shows Jarman discussing his support for the Labor Party and his subsequent disillusionment. He guides viewers through each collage, and the contradictions continue: quotes from The Watchtower are placed alongside pages of Shakespearean dialogues, Renaissance art and the teachings of Plato.

Photo: Marathon @ Geography

Meanwhile, several of Jarman’s provocative slogan paintings are featured in the exhibit; the first pages of The star newspaper with the alarmist headline “Dirty!” are dotted with black and red paint, the word ‘Morphine’ engraved on them. Another equally divisive painting bears the inscription “F–k Me Blind”. A painting, titled Pill boxis covered in a thick layer of alarming shades of red and orange paint.

In 1986 Jarman bought Prospect Cottage, notable for its proximity to the grim Dungeness nuclear power station, and spent much of his final years cultivating a garden that offered solace in a time of trouble. He combed the beach for shells and pebbles, arranged it among the foliage, and chronicled this conscious time in journals that became the book, modern nature (1991).

Derek Jarman died of an AIDS-related illness on the 19thand February 1994. He remains one of Britain’s most prolific and influential designers. A huge image of Jarman seated outside Prospect Cottage is adorned on the wall, in all its vividness, marking the end of the traveling exhibit. Sometimes incongruous, and perhaps rightly so given the tendency for juxtaposition of its namesake, PROTEST! manages to convey all aspects and avenues of Derek Jarman’s career.

Do not miss, Derek Jarman: PROTEST! Works up to 10and April 2022. Free entry.

You can read the article by Michal Wasilewski, senior culture editor, and former arts editor Sam Burt on Jarman’s singularly deep legacy here.

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