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Alchemical, anarchist punk, experimental, irreverent are some of the ways to describe the enigmatic Jarman. Film and music video director, gardener and campaigner Derek Jarman is the subject of a new exhibition, an artist whose practice reflected the celebration of gay sexuality and his commitment to raise awareness on AIDS, in the early 1980s. Rather than focusing on Jarman’s life, the show “Derek Jarman: my garden’s boundaries are the horizon” celebrates his garden, a monument to the many lives that art can inspire, and it is displayed at Garden Museum (Re-opened on July 4th) in London. Designed by Jeremy Herbert, this is the first exhibition to focus on Jarman’s love about gardening, and on the role of the garden in his life and career.  

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The following is a charming story, or, maybe, a modern, brutal and melancholic, but an undoubtedly sparkling fairy tale. When, in December 1986, he was diagnosed with HIV, the English filmmaker, stage designer, diarist, artist and gay rights activist Derek Jarman (b. 1942-1994) started building a garden on Dungeness beach, in Kent, right next to a nuclear power station. At that time, homophobia was widespread, and thousands of people were dying because of AIDS.  Jarman was a tireless activist who never stopped writing or protesting about issues of gay rights. In 1993, he directed Blue, an avant-garde feature film and testament, consisting of a single shot of saturated International Klein Blue filling the screen. The project was affected by Jarman’s blindness as he was only able to see the shadows of blue: his daydreams shifted from walking across the sky to wondering what an astronaut may be like.

At the same time, Jarman decided to build his own fertile utopia - a strange, beautiful and unlikely garden at Prospect Cottage, a black Victorian fisherman’s shack, that survived even after he died. 

 

                           

From left to right: Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage, c. 1990. © Howard Sooley; The garden at Prospect Cottage, c. 1990. © Howard Sooley.

In 2020, the Cottage was about to be acquired by a private party, but eventually the actress Tilda Swinton, Jarman’s long-standing friend, participated in a British charity campaign and helped the charitable organisation Art Fund to save Prospect Cottage from falling into private ownership. Thus, for the first time from its creation, the public will be able to view the interior of Jarman’s house, which was his source of inspiration and will now represent an example of human optimism, creativity and fortitude, the universal story of a man battling against the ravages of illness.

The cottage garden was made by arranging specific kinds of metallic shipwreck washed up nearby, intermingled with endemic salt-loving beach plants and colorful long-stemmed flowers, set against the bright shingle. The garden has been the subject of several books (Howard Sooley, Derek Jarman's Garden,Thames & Hudson, 1995) and of “Derek Jarman: my garden’s boundaries are the horizon” show at London’s Garden Museum. Paintings and sculptures from throughout Jarman’s career, on loan from The Keith Collins Will Trust. Photos of the garden at Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s childhood, film stills, artworks and garden journals are kept in a precious catalogue, whose edges are painted to match the doors and windows of the cottage that Jarman himself painted in striking yellow. 

 

Derek Jarman, Landscape,1991, Courtesy Collection Julian Sands.

 

                           

From left to right: Derek Jarman , Household God I (Handle), 1989, Courtesy Keith Collins Will Trust and Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London; Derek Jarman, Nightlife, 1987, Courtesy Keith Collins Will Trust and Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London

When the nomination for the Turner Prize came in 1986, he declared that painting was “his secret garden, an escape”. In 1990, during the making of his burning film The Garden - focused on a loving gay couple literally tortured and killed by Christian morality, set against a backdrop of Prospect Cottage, his “Garden of Eden”, Jarman became seriously ill. From the early 1990s, Jarman’s last colorful landscapes evoke the joy and beauty experienced in the garden - a dream world, a world of magic and ritual - while his black paintings from the 1980s, covered with tar and found objects from the beach and garden, are an emotive response to his HIV diagnosis.

 

Found object sculpture in the garden at Prospect Cottage c.1990 © Howard Sooley.

The important thing is “to get as much out of life as possible”: no boundaries for Jarman’s contemporary garden, like a resilient monolith on the beach that challenges nuclear waste; on clear pebbles, swept by the wind and salt, stays a sanctuary that revives the different realms of living.

Released in 1986, Caravaggio (Silver Bear at 36th Berlin International Film Festival) became Jarman's most famous fictionalized portrait to date, depicting the famed 17th-century Italian painter’s homosexual ambiguity, queer love, and embracing an anti-traditional narrative. From the lips of the young Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, these words come: “Think yourself as immortal, and capable of understanding all arts, all sciences, the nature of every living thing .. nothing is more difficult than simplicity, matter is in life”.

Cover image: Prospect Cottage, c. 1990. © Howard Sooley

Written by Petra Chiodi

 

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