Exploring the work of one of Britain’s most revolutionary artists

Áine O'Boyle

Photo Ros Kavanagh

Often hailed “The Andy Warhol of London”, Derek Jarman is easily identifiable as one of the most revolutionary British artists of his time. 

Born in 1942 in Middlesex, England, Jarman’s career was all-encompassing, with his work as a painter, writer, set-designer, gardener and political activist ultimately defining him. 

His life and works are currently being displayed in the Irish Museum of Modern Art PROTEST! exhibition until the end of February. 

The exhibition highlights Jarman’s political activism, showing him as a highly outspoken figure regarding his sexuality and his public fight for gay rights. 

Jarman also faced a personal struggle with AIDS, passing away in 1994 from an AIDS-related illness. 

The IMMA exhibition is the first time that the diverse strands of Jarman’s career have been brought together in over 20 years, portraying his unique style and the changing mood in British art of the time. 

Jarman began his pursuit of the arts after undertaking an undergraduate degree in Kings College London, studying Fine Art at Slade School of Art.  

Even from his early career, Jarman used art to engage with societal issues, with the PROTEST! exhibition highlighting this. 

His early works largely consisted of paintings, such as that of “Self Portrait”, “Trick” and “Landscape with Marble Mountain” which are featured in the exhibition. 

According to the IMMA, more than 80 of Jarman’s early works have been identified from the period of 1958-1970, with more than 30 of these being previously unknown. Such works have since been catalogued and included in the exhibition. 

In his mid-twenties, Jarman received recognition from the Tate Young Contemporaries, an incredible achievement for an artist of his age, and alongside his work as a painter, Jarman began to pursue set design for opera and ballet, combining his passion for painting with the three-dimensionality required for theatre production. 

The PROTEST! exhibition shows audiences Jarman’s sketches for set designs and several different costume designs designed by award-winning designer, Sandy Powell. 

Jarman also serves to consolidate his position as a nurturer of young artistic talent through providing artists such as Tilda Swindon, Joanna Hogg and John Maybury their first opportunities within the industry. 

A passion for film also developed throughout his career with Jarman working on Super-8mm film. In 1976 he produced his first film, “Sebastiane” against the backdrop of a Thatcher-era Britain, providing an artistic analysis of the socially conservative country. 

The film gave queer lives the opportunity to be visible within the course of Britain’s history with “Sebastiane” being broadcast on Channel 4 in the 1980s to a large audience. 

At the 92nd Academy Awards this year, costume designer Sandy Powell paid tribute to the life and work of Derek Jarman by wearing a plain white suit and getting celebrities attending the awards to sign it. 

With celebs such as Al Pacino, Scarlett Johansson and Margot Robbie signing the suit, Powell intends on auctioning it off and donating the proceeds towards The Art Initiative Fund to save Derek Jarman’s cottage in Dungeness, England. 

Powell considered Jarman to be a mentor to her throughout her early career and was hugely inspired by his work as a gay rights activist.

Áine O’Boyle

Image Credit: IMMA