Old favourites: Modern Nature by Derek Jarman

A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books

 Prospect Cottage built in tarred timber and made famous by Derek Jarman

Prospect Cottage built in tarred timber and made famous by Derek Jarman

 

My mother and I went to see the recent Derek Jarman exhibition in IMMA, the morning after it opened. Even more hungrily than myself, she has devoured his films and writing, and poured over his canvases. Jarman tends to have that effect on people; he still, repeatedly, incites obsession.

Walking around the exhibition, we both felt overwhelmed by his seemingly irrepressible energy. We kept saying to one another, in awed whispers, that what was so incredible, at least for us, was his total lack of doubt. He moved from project to project with dizzying speed, be it film, an exhibition, set design, writing, or his garden, and he immersed himself entirely in each; everything he touched, he imbued with the same “passionate intensity.” But he was in no way one of Yeats’s “worst” – he was one of those exceptional humans, rarely found, who possess total conviction in their actions, alongside genuine artistic genius.

Jarman famously suffered, and eventually died, from AIDs. Modern Nature is the diary Jarman began after receiving his diagnosis. It is, most simply, nature writing; a day-by-day account of his garden; what he’s planted, what grows, as well as looking into the history and lore surrounding certain flowers. In truth, Modern Nature is a meditation on Jarman’s life; his childhood, his early sexual experiences, his views on being an artist, on where society is going. Jarman was something of a modern conservative; he believed in sexual freedom and artistic expression, but mourned the days when every garden had a vegetable patch, and when the availability of certain fruits arrived with the seasons. Jarman writes that he never misses a sunset.

Yet there is nothing dour or po-faced about this book. It is a pleasure to read; intellectually and sensually. Jarman is an extremely charming and funny man. He offers insights into an artist’s life and encourages reflection on one’s own. Ultimately, like many of the greatest diaries, Modern Nature reads like the best kind of conversation – one pursued idly, over time, with a friend you truly love.

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