Derek Jarman at the Serpentine

    Derek Jarman didn’t like me much. I knew him a bit back in the 1980s, when I was the art critic of The Guardian and he was Britain’s best-known independent film-maker and a self-appointed guardian of The Guardian’s ethics. I’d see him around here and there, usually at parties organised by that flamboyant superconnector, the jewellery designer Andrew Logan. Jarman was charming, boyish, enthusiastic. And we got on well enough when there was nothing much at stake. Then he brought out Caravaggio, which I considered a monumentally silly film, and our relationship snapped. He branded me a homophobe, and that was that. Nothing I wrote about Caravaggio, or him, could possibly be right.

    A few years later, our paths crossed again when I became head of arts at Channel 4, and Jarman, who had now entered the endgame in his dark battle with Aids, proposed an extraordinary film to the channel, called Blue. By now, he was completely blind. And Blue, which lasted for 74 minutes, consisted solely of a blue rectangle that never moved from the screen, while its creator intoned a sad and pertinent poem about his life, against a musical background by Coil that mingled with and floated around the blueness. It was excellently radical. British television had seen nothing like it. And, as I remember it, the soundtrack from Blue was broadcast simultaneously on BBC Radio 3 – the first and last time such a cross-channel collaboration was attempted.

    In 1994, the year after Blue was shown, Jarman died. He was considered a national treasure at the time, and I for one expected his work to lead to something. At the very least, a troupe of hard-core independent film-makers would surely continue his battle-hardened brand of film-making on a shoestring. But the cruel truth is that they haven’t. Nothing much has been heard of Jarman since his passing. Yes, his films have their place in the social history of Britain – Jubilee, his masterpiece, is rightly considered a punk classic. But his artistic influence has been negligible. There are no Jarmanites running around continuing his experiment in film. And a career that seemed so explosive and significant at the time has fizzled out to a blurred memory.

    It is against this surprising background of cultural neglect that a special Jarman exhibition, curated by Isaac Julien, a fellow film-maker, with plenty of input from the actress Tilda Swinton, has arrived at the Serpentine Gallery, in London. There is also a new prize: the Jarman award for aspiring film-makers, worth £20,000 to the winner. So, a decent effort is being made to reremember Jarman. And we are once again in a position to consider his real worth.

    The show turns out to be a strange event. What exactly is this? A shrine? A memorial service? It features “sculptures” and paintings by Jarman, some of which have never been seen before, but it is largely given over to films. A few are by Jarman himself – you can see Blue again in its entirety, excellently presented on a big screen so the expanse of celestial azure has a chance to feel transcendental. But the centrepiece of the event, and its most telling contribution, is the showing of Derek, a warm-hearted tribute to Jarman, directed by Julien and presented by a tremulous Swinton, who also wrote the narration.

    Derek consists chiefly of old interviews with Jarman, intercut with scenes from his films and interspersed with deliberately unflattering shots of Swinton wandering about London in jeans and trainers as she remembers her times with him and laments his passing. Her chief regret is that Jarman’s intense, imaginative and heartfelt vision has been swept up in society’s dustpan and dumped. “Things have got awfully tidy recently. There is a lot of finish on things. Clingfilm gloss and the neatest of hospital corners. The formula merchants are out in force. They are in the market for guaranteed product.” As she says this, she wanders past a new Richard Rogers building, and the slick, shiny office architecture behind her, glistening like Habitat cutlery, makes her point about “guaranteed product” well enough.

    But the best bits of Derek are the interviews with Jarman. He was born into one of those well-off postcolonial households in which the sun was never allowed to set fully on the British empire. His father was in the RAF, and his mother was a feisty and glamorous country gal who made her own dresses. I once interviewed Swinton’s father at his baronial pile in the Scottish Borders, and there, too, the 19th century had managed eccentrically to linger on. The place was full of flags and swords and stuffed birds. I mention it here because the chief paradox of Jarman, and perhaps of Swinton, is that their supposed modernism was underpinned by so much sticky and cloying nostalgia for Britain’s past.

    In Jarman, this hunger was as thick as syrup. It was made explicit in his glam-Shakespearian version of The Tempest. Elsewhere in his oeuvre – everywhere in his oeuvre – it slowed down his vision to the pace of pouring treacle. It meant he had something to say to the new-romantic era when the taste for frilly shirts and velvet rereared its floppy head. But it didn’t arm him well for the fast-cut and lippy demands of the Brit Art years. As Swinton observes in the best of her aperçus, Jarman’s work always had about it “a whiff of the school play”. And the steamroller that was Britain’s socioeconomic success story of the 1990s was never going to stop to admire a school play.

    The show opens with some delightful photographs of the beachside garden in Dungeness to which Jarman retired when his illness became severe. Displayed in light boxes, and taken by Julien, they are, alas, the best art in the show. Julien himself may claim that Jarman deserves to be remembered as a sculptor and painter, but the thick black wall hangings smothered in tar that are proffered as evidence are thoroughly unconvincing. The comparisons made with Anselm Kiefer or Francis Bacon are ludicrous. As a film-maker, Jarman may have had his moments, but as a painter he seems never to have noticed that being deep and caking everything in extra-thick dollops of black are not the same thing.

    This painterly crudity, however, is not the most distressing aspect of the show. What worries me more is the relentless and tedious focus on Jarman’s homosexuality. I was reminded of my own mother, who never stopped talking about the war. It was the event that scarred her life and became her only topic of conversation, turning her into a war bore. Jarman was the same. He allowed his homosexuality to define him much too completely. It was something that Bacon, say, never did, or Michelangelo, or, for that matter, Caravaggio. As my 13-year-old daughter muttered harshly as she fled a show that offered her absolutely nothing in the way of shared experiences: “Okay, you’re gay. Now move on.”