As someone who made their way to the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) on 14 November, one would not expect to walk into an exhibition that truly captured the essence behind the great multi-disciplined artist Derek Jarman. 

Described as ‘The Andy Warhol of London’, the exhibit explores the work of Jarman from the years 1942 to 1994 curated by Sean Kissane. Jarman is known for several contributions to various areas such as film, written content, paintings, set design and activism. This exhibition encompasses all areas.

The exhibition is divided into 11 rooms that take you on a pathway of his life’s works. The first image you encounter is Jarman’s self-portrait as a teenager juxtaposed with his last piece of work in film called Blue. By this point, in 1993, Jarman was almost entirely blind due to his AIDS related illness so he had the film focus on sound rather than imagery with the only visual for the entirety of the film being a static blue backdrop. 

The following rooms include his work as a young artist in King’s College in London where he focused on Neo-romanticism with abstract figures. Room 3 takes us on a journey of Jarman as a graduate in the 1960-70s where his paintings moved to abstract, geometric paintings and mixed-media art. The fourth room is about his exploits in cinematography – Jarman made a total of 11 feature-length films in his life, his later pieces focusing on being queer.

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Other rooms showcased the work he designed for others – costumes, collaborations with young creatives, personal poetry and working on music videos with The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys and Bob Geldof. 

Something rather striking was that of Jarman’s ‘Black Paintings’ from the 1980s. This was a series he created when he was researching for the film Caravaggio. He used the renaissance technique of contrasting light and shadow and painted extremely sexualised imagery which was quite radical at that time, in the conservative Thatcher-governed England. 

The most poignant collection was of the ‘Slogan Paintings’ in Room 10. When the curator Sean Kissane addressed the crowd that evening, he described these works as a comment on the ‘blatant hypocrisy’ of the ‘AIDS Panic’ and hysteria at the time. Jarman took articles from British tabloids and overpainted the hatred with hopeful and funny messages to overpower the utter negativity that radiated from such newspapers in the early 1990s. What was captivating about this section of work was that by this time, much of Jarman’s sight had deteriorated due to his illness. Thus, with the aid of his studio assistant, he scraped these messages into these paintings. 

The final room was ‘Prospect Cottage’. This was an old fisherman’s hut in Kent which he bought shortly after his AIDS diagnosis. It included an intense body of work of a similar aesthetic to that of his ‘Black Paintings’ series. However, it included more three-dimensional elements such as tar paintings, smashed glass, crushed pills and many more. 

Jarman once said that he would survive Margaret Thatcher’s’ reign in government (which he succeeded) and wanted to live to see the Millennium where it would be ‘a world where we are all equal’. Sadly, due to illness Jarman did not get to see the society that we live in today. However, one way we could pay tribute to Jarman is to come and see this influential queer activist’s very personal and explicit depiction of the unequal society at his time and compare it to the way today’s contemporary society operates. 


Evelyn Tierney – Arts & Lifestyle Writer