2014 marks 20 years since the death of the Great British filmmaker, painter, set designer, gardener, diarist, activist and Alternative Miss World 1975, Derek Jarman. The year is being marked with events at King’s College, the BFI and the V&A. With so many of his acolytes (Sandy Powell, Cerith Wyn Evans, John Maybury, Tilda Swinton, Simon Fisher Turner et al) at the top of their game in mainstream culture, now seems an apt time to reassess Jarman’s art and its long term impact.
Derek Jarman’s ongoing appeal to many is that, while he injected fury, punch and confrontational politics into his output, he also fashioned a striking and alluring style – rustic, hedonistic, pagan and occasionally occult. His world was cliquey, cool, and quirky in a quintessentially English way: he always seemed to have one foot on the dance floor of Heaven and the other in the upstairs tea room of Maison Bertaux in Soho.
Like Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol, Derek Jarman couched his brand of counterculture in a gritty chic that has drawn subsequent generations to it, including art students who weren’t born when his creative light dimmed two decades ago. He aligned himself with the most intriguing characters of the 1970s and 1980s underground, including Andrew Logan, Duggie Fields, William Burroughs and Genesis P-Orridge.
The Jarman style is absolutely distinctive: the painterly light and frame of his feature films and blown up Super 8 movies; the palimpsest of his pop videos. There are the flashes of edgy contemporary dance and women spinning like banshee dervishes in torn gowns, flaming Union Flags and derelict buildings, and the omnipresent male nude. The Jarman aesthetic lives on: his analogue style has a warm authenticity, while the “look” of Prospect Cottage and Dungeness debris fill the pages of design magazines the world over. As much as anything, his work – from the films that he battled so hard to bring to fruition, to his candid diaries – captures an avant-garde era in London that is gone forever, and much missed.