Derek Jarman: Queer | Amanda Wilkinson

I was very mean about the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman’s “terrible” paintings when I last wrote about them, having visited his show at the Garden Museum in 2020. But this new exhibition of his, at Amanda Wilkinson’s upstairs gallery in Farringdon, has made me rethink my view. The thick black impasto of Jarman’s paintings, that I had nastily described as “lobotomised Auerbach”, now seems profoundly redolent of the artist’s rage and dread. These paintings still seem terrible to me, but in the sense that they induce terror.

Terror of death, of course. Jarman knew he was dying of AIDS when he painted the eight large canvases on show at Amanda Wilkinson: they’re all from 1992, and were originally shown at Manchester City Art Gallery that year. The artist himself had just over a year to live at that point.

Derek Jarman ‘Dead Angels’ (1992)

Terror and rage: Jarman was incensed by the homophobia of Britain’s media, and composed each of the works on show by photocopying particularly inflammatory tabloid newspaper front pages - LESBIAN TEACHER HORROR, HE CALLED IT LOVE… BUT I CALL IT MURDER - and semi-obliterating them under his thick oil paints. Added to the mix are Jarman’s own words, carved out in the paint at surface level. My favourite work from the show, Dead Angels, is above. Only after looking closely can you make out in it the artist’s own words, in firework reds and yellows, on top of the blackness: angel of death.

Jarman himself described these paintings as having been produced with “no hope and wild laughter”. I completely missed his humour the first time round, but it’s hard to miss here, in the works’ cacophonous layering of hysterias: some societally generated and fired up by an unscrupulous press, some the artist’s own. You step back and you have to laugh, given the bleakness of the alternative.

I did get one thing right in my 2020 review, describing Jarman as “one of the very angriest artists” of recent times. It’s a terrible achievement that this anger can still be heard, and resonates loudly, within these walls, on a sunny early winter afternoon, forty years after his death.

Derek Jarman: Queer is at Amanda Wilkinson (London). 05 October - 16 December 2023