My parents still sometimes flinch when I describe myself as ‘queer’ — they remind me that when they were growing up this was a homophobic slur and that for them it has residual venom. The feelings of my generation towards queerness reifies the extent to which reappropriation is possible, and has taken away a tool with which heteronormative society hurts us.
We Need To Keep Derek Jarman’s Protest Alive
On entering the Derek Jarman, Protest! exhibition, currently on display at Manchester Art Gallery, you’re met by a furious painting. It’s a huge canvas doused in red paint, onto which a heart and the word ‘QUEER’ have been etched. Looking at this word today, the image screams positivity — to be queer is, at least in our community, a good thing; something to be proud of.
"My parents still sometimes flinch when I describe myself as ‘queer’ - they remind me that when they were growing up this was a homophobic slur and that for them it has residual venom"
Looking at this painting with the woman I am dating, having finally embraced my own queerness, I feel a sense of pride. But this work wasn’t created with our modern association of the word in mind — the painting is layered with thick oil paints, flecked with green at the edges of the word, a single blob of purple slapped on like ejaculate underneath.
I am reminded of a scene in Basil Dearden’s groundbreaking 1961 film Victim, the first film to use the word ‘homosexual’, in which ‘FARR IS QUEER’ has been graffitied on a garage door. It’s an attack, one which has the potential not to celebrate but damage the sexual confidence of Dirk Bogarde’s protagonist. It’s this violent oppression that Jarman so vehemently stands against, paintbrush and camera blazing.
"It’s this violent oppression that Jarman so vehemently stands against, paintbrush and camera blazing"
After seeing this strikingly modern work at the exhibition, we are then taken through Jarman’s art in chronological order. It’s important that we see Queer first though, so we keep it in mind when looking at the more conventional paintings of Jarman’s youth at the Slade School of Art. As in any portrait of an artist as a young man, his influences are writ large — from Expressionist colour-blocking to a Picasso-like self-portrait and surrealist landscapes à la Dalí or Magritte. There’s even an enormous stripped-back version of The Inspiration of the Poet by Poussin, displayed as if it is the central panel of a triptych between two studies entitled Pleasures Of Italy.
These rooms give an impression of Jarman’s aesthetic formation — of someone emulating, then breaking, the moulds of others. He was a man who did everything against convention, shown through the large black scrapbooks he kept instead of written scripts for his films, to allow inspiration and internal sensibility to flow directly into his work. Where this begins fairly optimistically, by the end of Jarman’s life there is little but blood and fury.
Britain in the 1980s was hell for queer people. Jarman’s art, such as a series of ‘Black Paintings’ that riff on those by Goya, is an overt and crass rebellion against Section 28 and Margaret Thatcher’s oppression of the “promotion of homosexuality”. These works range from darkly humorous displays of men riding giant ejaculating penises, to a play on the double entendre of “He’ll be wearing pink pyjamas / When he comes” etched over orange condoms, to the flesh of gay men on Thatcher’s dinner plate.
"Jarman’s art, such as a series of ‘Black Paintings’ that riff on those by Goya, is an overt and crass rebellion against Section 28"
These works are congruous with Jarman’s films, especially Jubilee (1978) and The Last of England (1987), his most aggressively political projects. There’s an optimism to his biographical dramas in their celebration of historical queer figures from Saint Sebastian and Edward II of England to Ludwig Wittgenstein. But in his other films chaos reigns in a dystopian London, one which ruptures Gloriana and sends its cracks through history and across the globe.
Looking at Jarman’s work displayed as artefacts in a museum, we are tempted to believe their message has been consigned to a bygone era. But when facing yet another decade of Tory governance and austerity, one which idolises Thatcherism and promises the isolated sovereignty of this sceptred isle, even Jarman’s art doesn’t seem to go far enough.
Jarman’s protest wasn’t confined to art — as the LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell tells me, “Derek participated in many of the protests by the LGBT+ direct action group, OutRage!’ Enquiring after a photograph from February 1992 which shows Jarman and Tatchell lying on a road, he says it was part of an Equality Now! campaign in which they and over 50 others were arrested while trying to march on parliament to demand the repeal of anti-LGBT+ laws.
"Looking at Jarman’s work displayed as artefacts in a museum, we are tempted to believe their message has been consigned to a bygone era. But when facing yet another decade of Tory governance and austerity [...] even Jarman’s art doesn’t seem to go far enough"
Tatchell says Jarman “never acted like a diva or a queen bee” but blended in with everyone else despite being very famous by the early 1990s. “His involvement was extremely helpful. It meant that many of our protests got a lot more media coverage”. As the first UK public figure to come out as HIV positive after his diagnosis in 1986, Tatchell remembered his openness began “to shift the consensus towards greater compassion and enlightenment.” This is the end goal — the heart hidden beneath those layers of paint on Jarman’s Queer canvas.
Jarman’s battle with AIDS is horrifyingly documented at the exhibition’s end. With his senses failing, his works became less defined and more erratic, creating huge canvases like Queer with slogans such as Dizzy Bitch and Fuck Me Blind covering collages of homophobic tabloids. They represent a striking contrast to the film Jarman made at the end of his life, 1994’s Blue, which is as aesthetically minimalist as the medium allows, featuring only a screen of Klein blue as his feelings are narrated.
"the heart hidden beneath those layers of paint"
In Blue, Jarman describes the amount of pills and injections he had to take every day — a staggering volume visualised by a canvas bearing a day’s worth of medication. It’s these harrowing images that prompt so many to naïvely state that we have learned from the past. But with so much bigotry in Britain, and the recent rise in transphobia across the media, it is impossible to say that Jarman’s work is locked in the past. If anything, Jarman’s protest is only just beginning.
Derek Jarman Protest! is showing at Manchester Art Gallery until Sunday 10 April 2022
Cover image: Derek Jarman, The Garden, 1990, Film still, Pro res 5.1 with sound. Dimensions variable. Photo Liam Daniel courtesy & (c) Basilisk Communications