British film director Derek Jarman in 1980. Photo: Getty
British film director Derek Jarman in 1980. Photo: Getty © Getty Images

The exterior walls of King’s College in London’s Strand are emblazoned with pictures of its famous alumni and quotations from distinguished academic figures. They can’t help but give you pause for thought, which is appropriate. Universities have been relatively slow in learning how to sing their own praises, probably because they are trying to cure cancer or eliminate world poverty rather than having lunch with PR agencies that promise to polish their public image. But spreading the message that the world is a complicated place, made intellectually palatable by study and research, is a good place to start.

“Nothing in life is to be feared,” writes Marie Curie on the corner of Surrey Street. “It is only to be understood.” It is a bright way to think about the world.

Inside the college building, a small exhibition is devoted to one of its most charismatic old boys, the artist and film-maker Derek Jarman. It is 20 years since Jarman’s death from an Aids-related illness, and the show at King’s, entitled Derek Jarman: Pandemonium, is part of a London-wide celebration of his many maverick talents.

Two decades is probably the minimum time required before an artist’s impact can be assessed with any distance, particularly in a university. Put crudely, it means there are students there who were not yet alive at the same time as Jarman. No memories, no baggage, just a clear, uncluttered view.

“They see him as a historical figure,” says the exhibition’s curator Mark Turner, professor of English. “They don’t really know about Aids. The world has changed.”

Jarman’s reputation while he was alive suffered on two counts. The first was that he was an avid generalist, spreading his talents over several fronts: writing, painting, designing, film-making, polemicising. Like Jean Cocteau, a figure he much admired, Jarman was dismissed in some quarters as a charlatan who lacked the commitment to make the grand statement, someone who was happy to dip promiscuously into the shallows of different genres and art forms.

The second commonly held criticism is that he allowed his art to become ambushed by his politics. Jarman’s commitment to achieving equal rights for homosexuals was total, and resounded through all of his work. He was consequently regarded as a subversive figure whose insights were clouded by his personal crusade. By the time of 1987’s The Last of England, his coruscating account of Thatcherism, he knew he was ill, and his anger poured out of every frame in the film. It was a vivid, cantankerous work, and suffered short shrift from a new world that was in no mood to be held back.

But the King’s College exhibition, which concentrates on the artist’s relationship with London, tells the more complicated story.

“He was in many ways a contradiction,” says Turner; “certainly subversive, but also quite traditional. In that way he was a very British artist.”

Jarman didn’t want to go to King’s, preferring to take his degree at the Slade School of Fine Art, but he was persuaded by his RAF father, who said he could go to the art college as long as he got a “proper” degree first (Jarman duly attended both institutions).

His studies shaped him while he was at King’s, between 1960 and 1963. He became interested in medieval and Renaissance literature and history, in particular the element of magic that played such a prominent cultural role during those years; and he was exposed to the Beat poets.

Alchemy and Allen Ginsberg proved a potent combination of influences. Jarman yearned for an England that was pre-modern, fantastical, full of colour and light. He wrote voraciously for the student magazine, Lucifer. “Perhaps England is secretly nurturing something baroque,” reads the last sentence of one of his undergraduate essays. And if it wasn’t, he would provide it.

On leaving university, he became part of the “warehouse” generation of artists, setting up home three times in giant, near-derelict spaces by the Thames during the 1970s, only to be moved ever-eastward by property developers who shared Jarman’s fondness for the riverside aspects, but who wanted to make money, not art.

Another contradiction: although he pursued his own idiosyncratic visions with ferocious intensity, Jarman was also the most collaborative and generous of artists, says Turner, revelling in the cheerfully do-it-yourself cultural climate of punk Britain.

“He was always moving, always working,” adds Turner. “He got things done.” He says younger artists are fascinated by this aspect of Jarman: that you can be an artist without signing up to big deals with commercial galleries. “They really respond to how cheaply he did things!” he says.

Cheaply, and passionately. Jarman’s intellectual foundations, based on his studies at King’s, continued to inspire him for the rest of his life. The great unrealised screenplay on which he worked for many years was not some punky polemical tract against rightwing politics, but his version of that great narrative poem of the Middle Ages, Piers Plowman. Like any great student, he looked to the past to find a way of rebelling against the present. The college he didn’t really want to go to nurtured an original thinker of precocious insight and courage. He deserves this fresh, dispassionate look at his life.

‘Derek Jarman: Pandemonium’, The Cultural Institute at King’s, London, until March 9 @peteraspden

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