I’ve written extensively about Derek Jarman’s short super-8 film, Journey To Avebury; one of his earliest experiments in film that channels so much of the genii loci of English landscapes, ubiquitous in the more interesting of English arts. His walk through the Wiltshire landscape after the intense stint of work on the sets for Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) seems to have had a larger influence upon him than the singular short film belies. In fact, it germinated a whole range minimalist paintings very much in the abstract tradition of Paul Nash and others. Jarman has always been a quiet landscapist as well as the queer pagan punk that he’s been denoted as (he’s on record as having painted landscapes since leaving school) and it could be said that this silent creeping of landscape into his work stems from his exploration of the Neolithic landscapes of Avebury. Journey To Avebury is sometimes treated as the overall output of this dreamy summer walk but Jarman produced roughly a painting a year during the early years of the 1970s, recreating and augmenting this landscape; experimenting with shape and connotation of natural landforms through colour and line.
Jarman had already been toying with simplifying landscapes in painting in the years before he even picked up a super-8 camera. In his paintings, Landscape with a blue pool (1967) Landscape and Landscape II (years unknown, though undoubtedly before between 1967 and 1970), Jarman reduced the landscape to a blank colour – either the colour of the canvas in the latter two or painting it one flat colour as in the former – and then refilled it with abstract conceptions of landforms; horizontal lines creating the perspective of distance and the gradient of the land. These are then contrasted with occasional, more overt presences such as the blue pool and rocks in Landscape with a blue pool or a ritualised person seemingly sat under a totem in Landscape II. He referred to these as “eye-tricking imagery” (1991). The latter is especially interesting in that the vertical lines seem to represent totemic objects rather than, say, trees or other objects of the land. Jarman is clearly interested in remythologising such landscapes, finding magic within them through an occulting of the typical English vista. It’s no wonder Jarman felt such a connection to Avebury when he eventually visited.
Within the Avebury series, Jarman uses this structure of forming landscapes but reacts to a more overtly magical place. The natural obtrusion of Avebury’s menhir must be taken into account and naturally fits Jarman’s minimal form, ironically mimicking their relationship to the eye in reality; their strangeness in the landscape quite openly renders the fields around them as blank in comparison through their sheer presence. In these paintings, the totemic poles, casting their shadows upon the grass, are left, accompanied now by a variety of stones sitting upon each plane created by the horizontal lines. In this sense, Jarman doesn’t present the landscape as it is but presents an edit of it; bunching up West Kennet Avenue and the like into a linear, neat projection. With the stones being placed at random (and the paintings being made after his visit), it wouldn’t be surprising to find these stones taken from viewing his own super-8 footage. In Journey To Avebury, many shots consist solely of one stone, mostly taken around the main ring of the village. Avebury Series No. 2 and No. 4 (1973) have a sense of these objects being lifted from the landscape and realigned in a collage, a memory-scape of Jarman’s own making.
Avebury Series No.2
Unlike Journey To Avebury, this painting series feels like a false memory of the place yet is more powerful because of it. These are the bare bones of the place left on Jarman’s retina, retained in the mind and then reassembled. It’s the equivalent of an incredibly neat and tidy scrap-book of place; something that Jarman would continue to make more earnestly about his garden in Dungeness, later published as books. Interestingly the painting Jarman put most of these Avebury menhir in to is not officially part of the series but called Sand Base (1973). The fact that it’s painted in the same style and in the same year as Avebury Series No.4 suggests that it’s still part of the same general movement of work even if not officially. But there’s something different about the stones in this work. Whereas the stones in the previous paintings generally have the same texture, the stones here are split into two forms: one lead stone full of detail like the leader of a cult, and the other follower stones painted an oily black. The painting almost feels like a bird’s eye view, the black rocks seeming to be shadows of stones too thin to be properly seen from above. But there’s also a sense of a community created through a hierarchy of stone, as if we are witness to some ceremony that human eye was not meant to see as the sun dipped into dusk. The conspiracy of the stones is palpable.
Avebury Series No.4 (1973)
There is a line on the land.
Its shadow breaks the line of the soil.
Over this line, another line follows,
Broken by the stone, as black as oil.
Under the line, there sits a man.
The man sits upon another line; the line of the land.
He casts no shadow, no stone-ghost mural,
On a blank surface, once grass, now line.
There is a totem, casting a line,
A line of the shadow, underneath the non-shadowed man.
A stone rises, is it shadow or line or grass?
The line is weighted by rock,
I forget the measure of the line,
For there is only land.