Film/Art | Out of the Blue and Into the Black: Derek Jarman’s Dead Souls Whisper 

By Andréa Picard

“Colour is swallowed by the dark.”

—Leon Battista Alberti

“And so I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.”

—Maggie Nelson, Bluets

“I place a delphinium, blue, upon your grave.”

—Derek Jarman

Undoubtedly, the most referenced colour in the history of art has been the colour blue; it is perhaps also the most magnificent. From its invention by the ancient Egyptians, to the painted parchment in medieval Psalters, through Renaissance brocades and vast perspectival grids defined by winsome skies to those manufactured by James Turrell via artificial light or real ones enhanced and framed like sculptures, blue has the undeniable lure and power of a paradoxical emotion: to excite yet appease. Red and white flecks (especially in oil paint) may be used to direct the eye, to either reinforce or problematize formal proportions, and gold leaf is a brilliant seducer, but the quality of the blues (in Fra Angelico, Bellini, Matisse, Lorna Simpson, Jason Moran, et al.), when used, never fail to assert their presence. Like the twilight blues shot on film stock by Bresson (in L’Argent [1983] and Quatre nuits d’un rêveur [1971] especially) or Pialat (Sous le soleil de Satan [1987] and even Loulou [1980]) and the abstract blue cornflowers painted by Joan Mitchell in Bluets,there seems to be something both ethereal and physical, like a mass of immateriality, a metaphorical wave that washes over the viewer, altering one’s mental state—not hypnosis per se, but an acceleration of pleasure mixed with soothing, and maybe also a hint of impending violence. Of course, one can counter by saying these assertions are all subjective (they are!), as blue lends itself to one’s individual mood and sometimes, political affiliations, varying per country.

When iconoclastic British set designer, filmmaker, writer, artist, activist, and gardener Derek Jarman sought, in the distressing days when he was losing his eyesight due to a viral infection related to HIV, to immerse himself in blue for his final film, the blue of choice was International Klein Blue (IKB): the semi-cobalt, semi-aquamarine that French artist Yves Klein created, patented in 1961, and profusely used in both his illustrious monochromes and iconic body-action paintings. Those Anthropometry paintings bore the shape of female silhouettes resulting from performances in which Klein would employ (or deploy, rather) naked women as human paintbrushes in front of a live audience. A single note of Klein’s “Monotone Symphony” would play for 20 minutes followed by 20 minutes of silence, while women were painted and dragged across paper-lined floors to create canvases said to be influenced by the impressions of void space indented by the bodies on dojo mats during martial-arts matches that Klein witnessed in Japan—an extension of the artist’s enduring enticement by the notion of the void, or what he called “immaterial pictorial sensitivity.” 

In 2017, similar shapes in IKB were emblazoned on a much-coveted dress collection by Phoebe Philo for Céline, not only as direct homage to Klein but also in praise of the singularity of women’s bodies, signalling a desire to create for and celebrate the sensuality of women. Unlike the stark nakedness that was Klein’s instrument upon an inert, horizontal paper, where women were instructed to get down before a crowd, Céline’s canvas was billowy and brash, upright and strolling down a catwalk in a clin d’oeil of appropriation and sly rehabilitation.

O Blue come forth
O Blue arise
O Blue ascend 
O Blue come in

Before making Blue (1993), his final film, released four months before his death, Jarman wrote and published Chroma: A book of colours, an exuberant, compulsively readable, and erudite meditation on the history and phenomenology of colour. Each chapter (more or less) is devoted to one colour, copiously researched with examples from literature, art, and philosophy, spun into both pithy aphorisms and longer, digressive and diaristic stream-of-consciousness passages. The most personal and intimate is the chapter “Into the Blue,” which forms the basis of the script for his masterwork. Jarman’s hospital diaries, including falling into a “blue funk,” his pupils dilated with noxious nightshade “belladonna” as the doctors examined the lesions on his retina, are raw details in a generous description of illness, and paint a portrait of devastatingly beautiful humanity, the limits of control, of suffering made and unmade in equal measure. 

From mannered fervour to tremulous frailty, Blue’s text is narrated by friends Nigel Terry, John Quentin, Tilda Swinton, and Jarman as himself in the original English version (he is voiced by André Dussollier in the French one) before a backdrop of a rich, collagist soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner. An intermittent Tibetan singing bowl, reverberating sound, casts a ritualistic aura over the proceedings. As a cameraless film, Blue’s sole image is that of a deeply saturated monochrome in IKB on 35mm film, not unlike the flashes of blue disrupting Jarman’s diminishing vision at the time. A summation of what the filmmaker called his “aesthetic budgets,” wherein he compensated visually and most vibrantly for lack of funds with a mannered theatricality, Blue is a masterpiece of minimalism, a final testament that transcends the object world, as if floating into another dimension. It is not the Yves Klein void, it is not nothingness—quite the opposite, in fact: complete envelopment.

Jarman’s output in the final years of his life is dizzying. Leading up to Chroma and Blue, while he was living at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent, surrounded by his glorious, despite-all-odds garden, Jarman’s late style was one of urgency, of anger and love, of herbs and flowers, of thick impasto, of darkness imbued with his characteristic mischievousness—but less lavish and decidedly less baroque, more bric-a-brac. The recent exhibition Dead Souls Whisper, sharply curated by Claire Le Restif for the Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry—Le Crédac in Ivry-Sur-Seine, provided a rare opportunity to see so much of Jarman’s remarkable output from 1986 until his death in 1993, and included three rare Super 8 films from the ’70s. 

Culminating in the majestic, all-encompassing cinema experience that is Blue, the show began with Jarman’s final, outsized, blatant billboard paintings, a series entitled “Queer Paintings,” all from 1992. Lathered in swaths of impasto in dark carmine and muddy colours as a result of mixing, the canvases are imposing and rugged, without an air of subtlety between them. A suite of nine medium-sized paintings adorned the walls; another eight were exhibited upright and were purposefully confrontational, forming an obstacle course-like trajectory in which the viewer met the vertical freestanding canvases head on in an imposing physical space.

The visceral paintings, with their crude applications and equally crude messages, are a rebuke to all of the disgusting moral hypocrisy, puritanism, and bigotry embodied by the British political elite at the time of their making. Now we’ve all been screwed by the cabinet is a blood-coloured painting, black-red oil in agitated strokes through which emerge, in snotty yellow, the all-caps words “PUTRID,” “PUS,” “SCREWED BY THE CABINET.” Any impression of naïveté is quickly subverted by a feeling of shared outrage: this suite of paintings is conspicuous in its epistles and indignation, with slogans and subverted news headlines decrying a climate of hatred and death rendered inevitable. 

One painting stood out in its abstraction, its strokes more subdued, its colours from a softer palette of pink and lavender amid a turquoise green. At first glance, Positive looks like it could be a figurative painting of a garden detail, but upon closer inspection (and with prodding from its title), one can discern the word “POSITIVE” inscribed in black and upside down, floating there for the astute observer to grasp. The bright colours provided a flash of beauty within a room of darkness, like an avowal of Jarman’s unfailing dedication to his activism and his art, and to his sly usurping of discursive expectation of making the personal political and mixing hope with hopelessness. 

A final testament, thus, in oil on canvas, the paintings were an expression of arte povera for Jarman, who readily said that they were the only kinds of paintings he could produce in his weakened condition; they are a cri de coeur arising from enmity and hurt and a burning need to repel the heinous tabloid headlines directed against gay men. As his health deteriorated, Jarman enlisted the help of assistants Piers Clemett and Peter Fillingham in order to complete the works in an astounding two-week period—an experience apparently imbued with joy and collaboration rather than a fatalist’s doom and gloom. This paradoxical tendency in Jarman to pursue heavy subjects through playful means is further demonstrated in his Super 8 film Death Dance (1973), which was projected amid the paintings like a whimsical chimera. In grainy grey-blue hues, the film enacts a sort of bacchanalia and danse macabre with four naked men, who are literally touched by death in the form of a sheeted figure with a skull’s head. Theatricalized with an air of silent-cinema artifice, Death Dance exhibits handsome young men with their taut physiques, only to decimate them with gestures that are both swift and magical.

The next two galleries were devoted to Jarman’s “Black Paintings,” modestly sized, box-like constructions made with tar-toned oil and flotsam collected from the beach at Dungeness. A cross between paintings and assemblages, these works have often been compared to Rauschenberg in their collagist incorporations of newsprint along with objects like driftwood and various detritus (nails, coils, bits of rusted fence, dried flora), with accents of gold leaf. But at least for me, the plethora of gold also brings to mind the late works of James Lee Byars, who ritualistically and esoterically rehearsed his own death in gold while dying of cancer, and often employed personal symbols. The “Black Paintings” also seem intrinsically tied to the façade and shape of Prospect Cottage, which is painted the same tar black, with golden yellow highlights framing the windows and doorframe. 

Furthermore, one finds Goya, Jarman’s self-professed spiritual guide, via a famous quote by Heraclitus in one of the paintings—“Death is all things we see awake. All we see asleep is sleep”—that refers us back to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. In Chroma, Jarman poetically proclaims: “Black is boundless, the imagination races in the dark. Vivid dreams careering through the night. Goya’s bats with goblin faces chuckle in the dark.”Thus, a mix of painterly and historical references are deeply embedded into exceedingly localized works, whose surfaces are the result of gleaning from the environs near the abode where Jarman would live out the rest of his days. Mixed media and objets trouvés were eccentrically assembled into naïve forms of iconoclastic reliquaries, true to Jarman’s purposefully (and paradoxically) raw and ornamental style. 

The exhibition also featured a few vitrines filled with Jarman’s “Household God” series from 1989: small busts of famous figures like Molière, Handel, and Mozart, whose heads are replaced by indiscriminate vernacular matter like coral reef, rocks, or wood. Quirky and humorous, these are a send-up of museum displays themselves, of monuments to greatness, to the hegemonic legacies of representation and their dominant forms. These blockheads from history provided some levity in a show suffused with and overwhelmingly haunted by death, its spectre rendered with both seriousness and mischief-making, true to an artist whose activism only served to enhance his voice and sensibilities. 

Two more Super 8 films were projected in the open gallery on a loop, one after the other. At Low Tide (The Siren and the Sailor) (1972) is an anarchic fairy tale filmed on the Isle of Purbeck, where the artist spent part of his childhood. An arch miniature featuring a washed-up sailor drowned at sea, a mermaid donning an actual fishing net (a play on fishnets), and a masked god who consoles the siren when she cannot resuscitate hr beau, the film has the campy friskiness of Jack Smith with the vibrant colours of Marie Losier’s buoyant portrait films. Sloane Square: A Room of One’s Own (1974-76), on the other hand, is a real heartbreaker: one of Jarman’s “home movies” with the boys, a sort of chosen family hang-out documenting the poignant intertwining of life and art—the bachelors stripped bare, as it were. Shot in the apartment belonging to Jarman’s friend Anthony Harwood on the eponymous square with a static camera from a single vantage point in the living room, the stop-motion film is an exploration of space, bodies in space, and the real-time commemoration of Jarman’s eviction from said apartment. With the artist’s paintings and drawings in the backdrop, and a Warholian sense of a creative and sensual gathering place, Sloane Square is a gradual emptying out, the transition from lived space to the desecration of the walls with graffiti and slogans; its time-lapse structure is a reminder of time’s inevitable passing, of life’s fleeting moments of bliss, inspiration, community, productivity, and inexorable departures. 

As it segues from lived space to evacuated space and from black and white to colour, the film shifts into a more dynamic mode with quick edits and zooms into close-ups of objects like jewels, books, records, flowers, body parts—a sort of staccato of still lives. There’s a direct-address note to the audience and a self-portrait of Jarman filming himself in a mirror that heightens the self-reflexivity of the film, which emanates a quasi-Situationist psychosexual mapping of this milieu. Its leave-taking, in the context of this exhibition, was especially moving, and a reminder that Jarman forever imbued his works with more life than death, even at the very end. 

Concluding my visit with a twilight-timed screening of Blue in the “Crédakino,” the makeshift cinema space of Le Crédac, affirmed for me that Dead Souls Whisper was an essential reminder of Jarman’s importance and sustained relevance as a multi-talented artist and activist, too often excluded from the revived interest in the queer AIDS-related, intimate work of Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, and Hervé Guibert, the latter of whom rightfully noted, “Studies are often more beautiful than laboured final versions.” Blue may in fact be Jarman’s masterpiece, but the late style which precedes it is one of resounding resilience, an abundance of form and spirit spilling forth into the dark night, leading into an enchanting, eternal blue.