It’s been a very busy week, and I’ve been diving into all kinds of exciting new and inspirational activities, including the UEA Literary Festival. I’ve also been submerged in the magical world of Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, edited by Stephen Farthing and Ed Webb-Ingall, and I want to share the inspiration I’ve found in them with you.
In case you have never heard of Derek Jarman, he was a fabulously talented artist, film-maker, designer, writer, gardener and Gay Rights activist whose career was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1994, aged 52. He directed music videos for the Pet Shop Boys and designed the sets for Ken Russell’s landmark 1971 film, ‘The Devils’. At his home in Dungeness, he created one of the most haunting modern gardens in Britain, one that I am deeply in love with.
I first became aware of Jarman when I saw his film, Caravaggio (1986), starring Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, and Tilda Swinton in her first film role. Later, in 1991, I wept my way through his heart-breaking ‘Edward II’, an adaptation of Marlowe’s play that spoke of Jarman’s outrage at homophobia in Thatcherite Britain. These are not easy and accessible films. They are, however, fabulous to look at, and very moving.
When I came across this edition of the sketchbooks in the library the other day, quite by chance, I had no idea that Jarman was a committed visual diarist. The sketchbooks themselves are large – family photo album sized – and each cover is decorated in black and gold, making a slightly varied but pleasing continuity. Inside them, Jarman uses ephemera, calligraphy, drawing and painting, poetry, pages of film scripts, actors’ head shots from casting sessions, clippings from newspapers, reviews, photographs of friends and colleagues, bits of feathers and pressed flowers to document his life and each of his projects. The sketchbooks contain his thoughts on everything from his garden (there is a carefully drawn planting plan), to his illness, to sex, history and death.
Jarman made a series of paintings, the ‘GBH’ series, of black on gold abstracts, inspired by Goya’s Black paintings, and a film called ‘Imagining October’, which arose from finding Sergei Eisenstein’s own copy of ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, the famous book on the Russian Revolition, and on which Eisenstein had based his ground-breaking film, ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Jarman had been shocked to discover how much of the book had been redacted with blacked-out text by the Communist authorities. Both of these concepts are reflected in the sketchbooks, where you can see Jarman working on the idea of black bars with gold writing, seen on the cover of the volume. Jarman’s anger at the political situation for Gays in the UK shines through these blackened pages.
One of the things that particularly strikes me is the simplicity of the layouts he uses. Even when he is writing pages of text, making notes or journalling, there is a sense of space. Nothing is cramped. He spreads out, not denying himself room to work, enjoying the clarity of white space around his words and images. This is something I will definitely take away. My diaries always feel cramped. I always feel that every inch of space must be used, because materials are scarce. This denial of room to grow is cramping my creativity, something I need to break out of.
I want to draw inspiration from the sheer range of activities Jarman undertook, too. For him, there is no line in his sketchbooks between diary, writer’s notebook, sketchbook, planner or scrapbook, anymore than there were boundaries between the creative areas he worked in. Although he was primarily a film-maker, he was so many other things as well. Jarman teaches me that I don’t just have to stick to writing. I can follow where ever my Muse leads me.
There are no limits to what we can create, only the ones we impose on ourselves.
Things to try:
- See if you can get hold of a copy of Jarman’s sketchbooks. It isn’t cheap – £28 – so maybe you can order it from your library. You may not like his style of modernist art, but you can appreciate how he puts every aspect of his life into these visual journals to make a record of his thinking.
- Use your own sketchbook or diary as a kind of studio to record everything you do and think about a particular project.
- Collect clips, postcards, photos, anything relevant to stick in – Jarman even stuck a ten pound note into his!
- Luxuriate in space. Allow each of your drawings, paragraphs, or collaged pieces to bask in a frame of white space, so that they can shine out, and be seen for what they are. Don’t fall into my scarcity trap – there will always be more paper.
- Decorate the covers of your sketchbooks or journals in a similar way, as Jarman did, each one slightly different, but using the same colours or materials. Maybe you could do ‘series’ of notebooks, with matching covers, for different projects. Don’t be precious about them, however. Jarman once stuck a heavy bronze seal on the front of one of his books, but it was too heavy to carry and got in the way, so he ended up prizing it off. The scarred gold cover is even more interesting as a result.