London’s Garden Museum is a lovely, peaceful enclave on the Southwark riverfront, adjoining Lambeth Palace. A nice contrast to the subject of its latest exhibition, who’s one of the very angriest artists of the last few decades: Derek Jarman.
Alongside his work as a filmmaker and painter, specialising in naked guys speaking Latin and cludgy black canvases studded with broken glass respectively, Jarman cultivated a famous garden. For the last five years of his life, he lived at Prospect Cottage, close to the nuclear power station in Dungeness. He bought it from money inherited from his father’s will, in the certain knowledge he would be taken by AIDS in a few years.
Accordingly, he painted it black. He planted in the shingles outside his door, accentuated by collections of rocks and wires. His increasingly emaciated frame came to resemble these wires: a connection made clear by the lovely selection of photographs of Jarman tending his garden that bookend the show.
The Garden Museum has built a full scale replica of a section of Prospect Cottage. When you tread the shingles in this enclosed space, approaching the door, your footsteps echo uncomfortably loudly. Inside, despite cheery sky blue walls, the atmosphere is deeply oppressive. Jarman’s bed is a single mattress in a cell-shaped space, heavy telephone and thin blanket on top. Literally a prison bed.
The atmosphere isn’t helped by many terrible paintings. As well as the already-mentioned black works (which I can never look at without thinking of that Fast Show sketch), there’s some dense impasto paintings of tightly-banded horizontal colour, kind of lobotomised Auerbach meets Anselm Kiefer.
But all such thoughts are blown away when you sit down to watch the pair of films on display in projectors within the cottage: Bankside shows Jarman and friends at play in their studios close to the present-day Tate Modern, with spectacularly spectral shots of the river. The other, The Garden, shows scenes from and around the cottage itself. And it’s brilliantly evocative of the beautiful strangeness of that place, in an even more powerful way than the full-scale model can be.
That’s talent! Jarman had resolved “to get as much out of life as possible” when he created his garden. And its beauty and survival in the hostile conditions of shingle and salty air is a testament to that talent. With thanks to the Garden Museum for showcasing it so well.
Derek Jarman: My garden’s boundaries are the horizon is at the Garden Museum (London). July 04 - September 20 2020