Before the 1994 end of his battle with AIDS, the British filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman penned Chroma, an extended meditation on color. Newly re-released by the University of Minnesota Press, this slim, thought-provoking volume plays with color, memory, and culture. A cropped section of Jarman’s painting “Workbench” graces the cover, with thick blobs of red, orange, yellow, green, and blue paint drawing the eye to this shade or that. Prepare to dive into the rainbow.
As his eyesight deteriorated and his days drew to a close, Jarman pieced together 19 short essays, paying tribute to various hues that played a role in his life and artistry. Here you’ll find the seven colors of the rainbow, plus white and black and smudgy qualities like translucence, metallics, and blends like gray and brown.
Color is a part of our culture, the way we communicate: paint the town red, feeling blue, do you have a green thumb? Jarman includes references to the role color plays in the way emotion and observations are expressed, but Chroma is a much more personal journey than that. For the most part, Jarman keeps his colors firmly separated—he is an artist who understands how important it is to confine his hues and use them purposefully.
It’s impossible to isolate them completely, however, so the reader also observes Jarman’s acknowledgment of the interaction between certain hues. He calls ‘shadow’ the queen of color, and says that orange and brown share the same wavelength. A section on green and all manner of verdant gardens cannot avoid the other vibrant hues that populate the undergrowth. Over time, film and photographs deteriorate, the colors morphing into completely new shades, shadows of their original selves.
Color triggers memory, and provokes recollections of verse. Jarman is fond of T.S. Eliot, Aristotle, Chaucer and Wittgenstein. Quotations from famous works find their way in between Jarman’s anecdotes of times in his past when a particular color played an important part in his memory. Mixed up with memorable episodes in the author’s past are also biographical musings about the great minds he quotes from. Not only has color played an incredibly important role in Jarman’s oeuvre, but he also he connects the chromatic dots into the lives of great scientists, philosophers and artists who came before.
Chroma does not read like a memoir, but rather like a commonplace book. It’s a record of sorts, documenting influences on Jarman’s perception of art and the blending of artistry that came before with the culture that has followed. Quotations follow de-contextualized thoughts follow lists of things falling into a color category together, repurposed by the author to depict a precise moment or mood. At any moment he may dissolve into poetry.
The effect can be disorienting, like viewing a large-scale painting. There is no cohesive narrative, here. Wielding an oversize palette, Jarman doles out daubs of pure pigment in the form of language and poetry. From time to time a color relates to a stage of Jarman’s HIV infection, his battle with associated illnesses that flare up and confine him to a hospital bed. White as a sheet, taking white pills, trying to ward off the attack on white blood cells.
Jarman draws together disperse cultural movements in Western history, noting the influence of color and form on various great artists. He sees contradictory colors, unexpected tones, the blue in snow white, the incredible depth of color in illuminated religious texts that have been preserved and rarely opened. Society places certain values on colors, associating them with sex (Scarlet Whore of Babylon), nature (an optimistic orange sunset), religion (vivid green Garden of Eden), and disease (yellow fever).
Memory and history are tinged not only with color but with emotion, as Jarman reflects on his past and the knowledge that he is dying. He writes of particular colors in his personal history that stand out clearly, or muddle together. Jarman’s writing will encourage the reader to assess their own relationship to color and memory. It’s a beautiful journey, and a gift that Jarman was able to document it before his death.