Derek Jarman was a pioneer artist who chronicled his own life extensively. After his death in 1994 from AIDS-related complications, biographies continue to be published. However, this week a new book is being launched: Derek Jarman’s Angelic Conversations. Written by Jim Ellis, an English professor at the University of Calgary, the book is a comprehensive study of Jarman’s filmic career.
“It’s definitely not a biography; it’s a study of Jarman as a radical artist,” says Ellis. “In the English language tradition, he was the first out gay director: the first to portray gay men in an outright way and the first to show gay men who were not sick or tragic. I think he is still underappreciated as a filmmaker. We have underestimated how good his films are, and how radical they are.”
Jarman’s lasting renown comes from his struggles with society and his overt critiques of art and politics in England. He raged against the British film industry and loathed period films in the vein of Merchant & Ivory. He was also very public about AIDS and his infection, at a time when society preferred to look away.
“Jarman lived in a state of general poverty — he embraced it, wanting to be true to his art and not lusting after fame and fortune,” says Ellis. “He had a sense that art should affect an audience. Some of his experimental films feel like an assault and this was intentional.”
Angelic Conversations explores Jarman’s evolution as an artist, and the book unfolds chronologically.
“The thing that is remarkable about Jarman is that you can almost chart post-war gay history through his career and lifetime. You can see the shift from homophile, to homosexual, to gay, to queer by looking through his art, because he was such an engaged artist,” Ellis notes.
Jarman continues to be relevant today, as myriad artists including poets, musicians and directors are still dedicating work to him. Moreover, his influence is seen in the work of his living colleagues, contemporary artists such as Tilda Swinton and Isaac Julien. And one of his pieces is very much alive. Before he died, Jarman created a garden at Dungeness in the shadow of a nuclear power station.
“I think his garden is a metaphor for his career — reclaiming a ruined space and cherishing it,” says Ellis. “When I was at Dungeness, doing research for this book, I met two older ladies visiting the garden. They were surprised to learn that he was a painter and filmmaker as well. Apparently, he is famous in British horticultural circles for his gardening alone.”
Cinephiles will be pleased that the book launch will be accompanied by a 35mm screening of Jarman’s Caravaggio presented by the Calgary Cinematheque Society.
“Caravaggio is Jarman’s most accessible and aesthetically successful film. It was his first mature work as a filmmaker and the first mature reflection by an out gay artist on the connection between art, sexuality and politics,” Ellis remarks.
Perhaps also fitting is the book launch being in Calgary itself.
“Jarman spent a summer in Calgary in the ’60s pursuing a lifeguard named Ron. As scholars, we don’t know what ever happened to him,” says Ellis.
Derek Jarman’s Angelic Conversations book launch and Caravaggio screening.
Thu, Jan 21, 7pm.
The Plaza Theatre.
1133 Kensington Rd NW.