Derek Jarman made his first visit to the Walker Art Center in 1986 for his retrospective Of Angels and Apocalypse: The Cinema of Derek Jarman. Coming from a fine arts background and already established as a painter (he was short-listed for the 1986 Turner Prize), Jarman invented himself as a filmmaker in 1970 and went on to produce dozens of shorts and features until his death from AIDS-related complications in 1994. The Walker series was Jarman’s first U.S. touring show, coinciding with the release of Caravaggio (1986), his dazzling meditation on the Renaissance genius.
Nothing if not personal, Jarman’s films are driven by the traditions into which he had been born or entered and that he would replenish or subvert: the cultural patrimony inherited as a British citizen; his disposition as a gay man in the pre- and post-AIDS twentieth century; and his self-awareness as a visual artist. Those preoccupations animate The Angelic Conversation (1985), structured around actress Judi Dench’s voice-over of the fourteen Shakespeare sonnets addressed to a young man and set to a visual field of lyrical homoeroticism unparalleled then in cinema history. As I wrote at the time of Jarman’s visit, the film “feels like the missing link (stumbled across thirty years late) between Eisenstein and Anger … it’s an _ur_text of a certain homosexual film avant-garde.”1
Blue (1993) is Jarman’s summary—a radical gesture of producing a feature-length film consisting solely of a deep blue light, with music, rumination, and conversation on the sound track. Since art school, Jarman had admired the artist Yves Klein, and Blue uses video technology (transferred to 35mm film) to approximate the retinal values of International Klein Blue, the aquamarine color indelibly associated with the French painter. Beyond exemplifying one visionary paying homage to a forebearer, Jarman’s Blue is also about an artist staring down his own impending death—it was Klein’s blue that Jarman professed to see while being administered eyedrops to fend off the blindness descending upon him from the ravages of AIDS.
Blue would come to exist as a book and as a radio program, as an element in a live performance and as a gallery installation; its first appearance at the Walker was as a 35mm film screened on December 1, 1993, for World AIDS Day. In 1986, as we walked across Loring Park from his hotel toward Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, Jarman told me he was HIV positive. His days on earth between then and his death in 1994 are what Blue so serenely resolves.
William Horrigan, “Derek Jarman,” in William Horrigan, ed., Of Angels and Apocalypse: The Cinema of Derek Jarman (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1986), unpaginated. ↩