After visiting Manchester Art Gallery on the last day of 2021, I took the book from my shelves one more time and was struck by a line on page one:
‘When you visit, tread softly, for many choose to live here for the solitude and silence.’
The exhibition I visited in my own silence at the gallery was ‘PROTEST!’ a major retrospective of Jarman’s work, delayed from earlier in the year because of lockdown.
Jarman bought Prospect Cottage, in the unlikely shadow of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station in 1986 – the year that he was diagnosed with AIDS – and spent the last years of his life creating his garden of solitude and silence from objects he found on the beach and hardy plants that thrived in the exposed environment.
I say ‘my own silence,’ because the exhibition had a profound effect on me and, it was easy to perceive, all of the other visitors there at the time. Manchester Art Gallery have created a ‘cathedral like’ retrospective which displays Jarman’s work in all its diversity and pulls at sensibilities and emotions in the spirit of one of the 20th centuries most influential artists.
After training at The Slade in London, graduating in 1967, Jarman established his own studio at Butlers Wharf in the early 1970s.
His first love was film, his first and lasting medium was Super 8 – then really the only accessible film medium affordable outside of the major production companies. The Jarman catalogue of ground breaking films went on to include a dozen feature films, more than forty short films and dozens of pop videos…his work concurrent with the advent of MTV. Plus the scenic design of half a dozen major productions, and authoring of several books.
This catalogue covers a mere 25 years…and, apart from film, scenic design and writing, Jarman was painting, sculpting, collecting, assembling. The resulting retrospective an extraordinary representation of what must have been a burning curiosity for the visual.
But the thread throughout those 25 years was his political activism in fighting for gay rights and personal freedoms. A thread which ran overtly and covertly through many of his films and much of his painting, drawing and writing.
Hence the title of this moving retrospective of not just his work, but also his life.
‘Protest’ is one of those rare exhibitions that must be seen. It doesn’t fall into a category; it doesn’t follow a style. It captures how a relentless curiosity viewed and collected, created and crafted every day life.
As Derek Jarman was being treated for AIDS, he even found a beautiful symmetry in making a frieze of the medicine jars, syringe and thermometer that constituted just one day of anti-viral treatment in the clutching early days of the disease.
When you visit, tread softly in the solitude and silence.
Protest runs until April 2022 at Manchester Art Gallery.