Tag Archives: Yves Klein

A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 10)

It is fitting, then, that the final sequence of “Untitled” (2000-2001), subtitled “the future” (deliberately rendered in the lower case), should take the form of a multiply-mediated citation of Derek Jarman:  a series of blue frames traversed by the scan lines that Andrews produced by videotaping a vacant television screen, photographing the resulting tape as it appeared in turn on his monitor, then photocopying and transferring the frames onto the mylar strips.  The last part of “Untitled” is thus readable in part as a homage to Jarman, as Blue itself is readable in part as a homage to the work of Yves Klein.  More specifically, Andrews’ photocopy transfers stand as so many mute (or “still”) commemorations of the eloquent testimony in the voiced soundtrack of Jarman’s final film, which is pointedly not reproduced, but rather entrusted to the viewer’s fallible memory and unpredictable sense of responsibility.  Attesting to the distance, the mortal difference between Blue‘s provenance and its own – “Untitled” (2000-2001) is of a time that Jarman did not live to see – Andrews work proffers a series of afterimages of what is itself an afterimage:  “the future” figured, poignantly, as “a short sequel of sorts.”

In the context of this blog’s trajectory of readings, Andrews’ inexact visual quotation may also evoke one of Seneca’s own citations in “De brevitate vitae,” enlisted to substantiate his claim that life, whatever its duration, “is long if you know how to use it”:  “so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets:  ‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time” (Seneca, trans. Costa, 60)  [adeo ut quod apud maximum poetarum more oraculi dictum est, verum esse non dubitem:  “Exigua pars est vitae, qua vivmus.”  Ceterem quidem omne spatium non vita sed tempus est].  Because, as the philosopher’s English-language editors and translators acknowledge, “The quotation has not been identified,” what Seneca bequeaths to us is but a “prose rendering of an unknown poet” (Seneca, ed. Costa, 117 n4).  The erstwhile “greatest of poets,” relegated by time to the rank of unknown, lies degraded in the compost of cultural memory, surviving in and as a prosaic paraphrase of a brief remark, partaking of the shared fate that Andrews’ work never lets us forget.

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 10)

Because, as Jarman attests, “we don’t lack images – just good ones,” because “The image is a prison of the soul, your heredity, your education, your vices and aspirations, your qualities, your psychological world” (Blue, 15), Blue forgoes visual imagery, presenting its viewers instead with a blue after-image sustained beyond its ephemeral lifespan for seventy-seven minutes:

In the pandemonium of image

I present you with the universal Blue

Blue an open door to soul

An infinite possibility

Becoming tangible  [Blue, 11]

The supplanting of image by the “infinite possibility” of Blue is further linked to Jarman’s own history, and specifically to his ambivalent sense that (like Yves Klein’s) it is drawing to a premature close:  “Some part of me dares this blindness to progress, it says I’ve seen enough” (Smiling, 230).  It is perhaps the same part of him that seeks relief from the “cacophony,” the “pandemonium of image”:

Over the mountains is the shrine to Rita, where all at the end of the line call.  Rita is the Saint of the Lost Cause.  The saint of all who are at their wit’s end, who are hedged in and trapped by the facts of the world.  The facts, detached from cause, trapped the Blue Eyed Boy in a system of unreality.  Would all these blurred facts that deceive dissolve in his last breath?  For accustomed to believing in  image, an absolute idea of value, his world had forgotten the command of essence:  Thou Shall Not Create Unto Thyself Any Graven Image, although you know the task is to fill the empty page.  From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image.  [Blue, 15]

Saturating the screen with “the universal Blue,” Jarman releases his viewers from image as an affront to sore eyes, but not from the obligation to read.  His caveat to the commandment invokes the ongoing “task” of writing, and with it the inevitable, invisible images in the language enlisted “to fill the empty page” and destined for our ears:  the images we hear rather than see in Blue.  As Derrida reminds us in his Memoirs of the Blind,

One must always remember that the word, the vocable, is heard and understood, the sonorous phenomenon remaining invisible as such.  Taking up time rather than space in us, it is addressed not only from the blind to the blind, like a code for nonseeing, but speaks to us, in truth, all the time of the blindness that constitutes it.  Language is spoken, it speaks to itself, which is to say from / of blindness.  It always speaks to us from / of the blindness that constitutes it.  [Memoirs of the Blind, 3]

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 9)

In a proposal dated May 1991, Jarman contemplates a scenario for Blue in which the only trace of “the original Klein idea” would be a “sea of time, presented as a blue void.”  The relationship between the “blue void” and the “sea of time” it is meant to present is not so much metaphorical as allegorical, unfolding over time:  in the event, not ninety but seventy-seven minutes of a feature film that translates the devastation to which Jarman has been witness.  To the extent that Blue succeeds not so much in surmounting the obstacle of incommensurability (“No ninety minutes of cinema could deal with the eight years HIV takes to get its host”) as in rendering the predicament itself on film, the difficulty and the responsibility to address it become the viewer’s own.  If the “blue void” that is the sole visual content of this film without images figures (among other things) a “sea of time,” how do we, erstwhile survivors of the pandemic, read this time, which subsumes the multiple temporalities inscribed in the passage in which “The drip ticks out the seconds, the source of a stream along which the minutes flow, to join the river of hours, the sea of years and the timeless ocean” (Blue, 18)?  How do we read what in Blue is more and other than a theme:  the possibly illegible signature of Jarman’s last film?

One hypothesis might be ventured based on the film’s association of blue with the telling phenomenon of the after-image:  “The shattering bright light of the eye specialist’s camera leaves that empty sky blue after-image.  Did I really see green the first time?  The after-image dissolves in a second” (Blue, 27).  Jarman’s final film is of a time after the time of images, in several possible senses.  One of these, perhaps the most readily legible, is a function of its position in his trajectory of filmmaking:  It completes the notional trilogy whose earlier components, The Last of England and The Garden, partake of his characteristic image montages that configure past (e.g., in their incorporation of Jarman’s earlier Super-8 films and his father’s home movies), present (e.g., in their depiction of the Thatcher era in Britain), and future (in their respective prophetic elements), conjugating these three tenses as they unfold over their feature length.  Blue concludes the Dantesque sequence in which “The first film represented the underworld, the second the real world, Bliss paradise” (Peake, 475).  In this sense, its serene colour field comes after the time of images in the context of Jarman’s filmography.

It does so, too, insofar as the “age of AIDS” conceived as a historicist periodization follows an era characterized by the project of gay liberation and its vaunting of “positive images,” a nomenclature that arguably failed to stand the test of time from one decade to the next.  As Jarman attests in Smiling in Slow Motion, “The concept of positive images was born out of gay liberation in the 1970s…. There was a disgraceful review of my films by the [Gay Times] positive image ‘film critic’ Steven Bourne.  Positive images are an illusion, like commercials – they are not the stuff of art” (Smiling, 168).  What he deplores in a reliance on such images is the failure to engage with the graphic realities of homophobia in a tactic that seeks to counter bigotry through a mimicry of the acceptable, youth and health being constitutive components of the putatively positive.  For Jarman, the political and historical matter of “positive images” was inseparable from the filmmaker’s ever-present pragmatic dilemma, as he noted in preparing to shoot Wittgenstein:  “How do you make images resonate?  They can’t be illustrative, there’s not much point in making a film ‘about’ something” (Smiling, 133).  (It was also at times difficult to disentangle from the problematic “visual illiteracy” he deplored in the London passersby [Smiling, 177]).

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 3)

A journal entry dated March 2, 1993 registers Jarman’s satisfaction on completing the film whose possibilities he had contemplated for years.

We sit in the Blue…. Intricate landscape of pain, all at sea, leaving one’s senses.  We finished Blue just before midnight…. I think the film is magnificent – it’s the first time I’ve been able to look one of my films in the eye.  Cinema catches up with the twentieth century, this is the first feature to embrace the intellectual imperative of abstraction, it’s moody, funny and distressing; … it takes film to the boundary of the known world, the River Oxus.  The film is dedicated to HB and all true lovers.  [Smiling in Slow Motion, 320]

For the reader of the journals written from 1991 to 1994 and published posthumously as Smiling in Slow Motion, there is no small irony in the figuration that has Jarman, for “the first time,” looking his last film “in the eye” (and that has cinema, in and through Blue, “catch[ing] up with the twentieth century,” as the virus whose appearance is dated from the 1980s catches up with its director).  For by this point, HIV has more than once cost him (among much else, certainly) his sight.  The journals of this period chronicle a series of opportunistic infections that deprive him of visual perception, as well as the treatments administered to ward off the encroaching blindness.  In August, 1992, in language that will resurface in Blue, Jarman notes:

Dr. Mark thought that he could detect lesions in the back of my retina, and put the stinging drops in….

Eyes again, a terrible blinding light.  I was put on a succession of machines.  “Look left, look up, look down, look right.”  The torch was blinding, but worse was to come, as CMV, now diagnosed, was photographed.  A blinding flash into the eye while you concentrated on a small flashing red and green light, a green moon after-image and then the world turned magenta.  The photos of my eyes looked like one of those colour photos of a distant planet.  “Like a pizza,” said the doctor.  “We often use culinary terms in the hospital”….

A young South African doctor came to inspect the damage.  I won’t get the vision back this time, though when the bleeding in the eye is stopped it might improve slightly.  Blindness is on the cards.  I’m relieved that I know what is happening, the worst is the uncertainty.  I think I have played this scenario back and forth nearly every day for the last six years.  [Smiling, 189]

Shortly thereafter, he resolves to play the hand he has been dealt, and to stay true to his vision even in the absence of his sight:  “I think I have to come to terms with my blind fate, there is so much to do, if Beethoven could write the ninth without hearing, I’m certain I could make a film without seeing…. I wonder how long it takes to learn Braille.”  [Smiling, 192]

It was a year later, in August 1993, that Jarman participated in an interview with John Cartwright of the British Arts Council, filmed in his art dealer’s studio against the backdrop of one of his last paintings and released under the title “There we are, John…”  [dir. Ken McMullen, British Arts Council, 1993]

In response to a question about his most recent feature, Jarman observes that “It is a film…. Technically speaking, it shouldn’t be.”  His spare formulation underscores the fact that Blue, with its “roots in painting” (it began as a film loop of a Klein monochrome in the collection of the Tate Gallery), has a singular status in the annals of cinema.  For not only is it a film without images, whose sole visual content is a blue colour field that approximates IKB.  It did not, moreover, ultimately result from any activity of filmmaking as conventionally conceived and practiced:  in the event, the film loop was set aside, and the colour produced in a lab.  Blue thus stands in stark contrast to the director’s earlier endeavors, notably The Last of England and The Garden, with their highly wrought image montages and internal references to the process of their own creation.

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 2)

The gestation of the film that would eventually be realized as Blue was a lengthy one, traceable through notes and proposals dating from as early as 1987, as well as through the range of possible titles that Jarman considered at various stages, including Bliss, Blueprint, A Blueprint for Bliss, International Blue, Forget-Me-Not, Speedwell Eyes, Bruises, Blue protects white from innocence, 0, Into the Blue, My Blue Heaven and Blue is Poison.  In a proposal written in August 1987, preserved in the archive of his production company, Basilisk, Jarman adumbrates      

[a] fictional film exploring the world of the painter Yves Klein, inventor of the void, International Blue, the symphony monotone.  A film without compunction or narrative existing only for an idea.  In the cacophony of images Yves found the silence of the immaterial, expressed in a series of symbolic gestures performed in six short working years before his early death [in 1962] at 32.  Yves is mercurial, enigmatic…. a devotee of St. Rita, the patron saint of lost causes…. The proposal is to develop a feature length film in 35 mm exploring further the juxtaposition of sound and image that exists in ‘The Last of England,’ but unlike this film to produce an atmosphere of calm and joy.  A world to which the refugees from that dark space might journey.      


In the aftermath of his HIV diagnosis, Jarman found fresh inspiration in the abbreviated career of Yves Klein, particularly in the latter’s pursuit of the immaterial in and through his monochromatic paintings rendered in the vibrant ultramarine that he would come to copyright as “International Klein Blue,” or IKB.  In Chroma, written in 1993, Jarman invokes “The great master of blue – the French painter Yves Klein.  No other painter is commanded by blue, though Cezanne painted more blues than most.”      

International Klein Blue

 Though Blue was initially conceived as an imageless homage to his predecessor, accompanied by a “sophisticated Dolby stereo soundtrack which would tell the Yves Klein story in sound and jazzy be-bop,” the obvious difficulty of funding such a project led Jarman to consider other, very different scenarios, including an elaborate masque dedicated to Klein that would involve a host of dramatis personae, historical pageantry and image montages.  Always, the soundtrack was integral to his plans for the film.  At one stage, Jarman “dreamed of recording the actor Matt Dillon’s heartbeat for the soundtrack:  ‘it would make a great first credit'”; at another point, he “thought the film might follow the sound of footsteps, a journey with the continuous murmur of lazy waves, sea breezes, thunder, and stormy growlers.”      

In the name of “the admirable austerity of the void,” however, the filmmaker would ultimately revert to his original conception of a blue screen devoid of images.  If for Caravaggio, the protagonist of an earlier feature released in 1986, the color had been “poison,” Jarman himself came to exploit the potential of blue as pharmakon:  simultaneously pathogen and remedy, and strictly neither, but a potent distillation of autobiography and historiography, “subjective memory and documentary reality,” in “a fragment of an immense work without limit.”

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