Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In the Realms of the Unreal

I recently saw In the Realms of the Unreal--The Mystery of Henry Darger, a documentary on the life and art of recluse Chicago artist Henry Darger (1892-1973). His art is considered to be outsider art, since he had no art training and worked completely outside of the art establishment.

Darger's life story is a sad one. When Henry is 4, his mother dies giving birth to his sister. Henry's father, who is both sick and poor, gives Henry's sister up for adoption, and Henry never knows his sister. Henry lives an impoverished but happy life with his father until the age of 8, when Henry's father becomes too sick to care for him any longer. Henry's father goes into a home for the poor, and Henry is put in an orphanage and later an asylum. When Henry is 16, he escapes from the asylum and makes his way back to his birthplace, Chicago, where he works as a janitor, lives in a single room, and avoids human contact for the rest of his life. He retires in 1963, and eventually dies in the same Chicago poor house as his father. After his death, his landlords discover in his room a 15,145 page manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story. Here are two of Darger's paintings.

Darger felt very protective of children (perhaps as a result of his own childhood), and his story centers on children and their battles. Strangely, in his paintings, naked little girls all have penises. One theory is that he was so socially isolated he did not know that females are anatomically different from males.

Darger was very poor, and could not afford expensive art supplies or training. He created art on phone book paper. He went through the Chicago garbage cans to find newspapers and magazines that could provide material for his art. If he like a picture he found, he would trace it or practice drawing it until he was satisfied. He apparently did not have strong drawing skills, but instead relied on tracing and collage to create his pictures. Composition and artistic vision seem to have been his strengths, not technical skills.

Darger never showed his art to anyone.

The documentary is informative, not sentimental, and shows some of Darger's artwork. It features interviews with people who knew Darger, which I found to be the strongest aspect of the documentary. The film animates some of Darger's artwork. I did not like the animation. I would prefer to see it as Darger produced it.

Overall, I found the documentary sad, because Darger's life seemed to be a sad one. The one thing that struck me, however, is how Darger devoted his life to creating art that no would ever see, and he did this despite the fact that he was very poor his entire life. This I find very inspirational. Here are the questions this documentary raises in my mind:
  • What if I never showed my art to anyone? What if I did art for my own enjoyment or psychological well being only? How would that change my art? What if there were no Internet or blogs?
  • What if I didn't depend on purchased items to create art? How would my art change?
  • What if I didn't care what other people think?
I have not been able to find a reasonably priced book of Darger's artwork. Amazon says used copies of Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal start at $495.00. The Dallas Public Library has this book, but it is for reference only, meaning it cannot leave the library.


AscenderRisesAbove said...

I too was really moved by the documentary and have watched it many times. To me, the largest question is that of the role of the landlord - a professional photographer as I recall - who had seen the inside of Drager's apartment, goes on to evict him? and he dies in the same institution his father died in? then the landlord goes on to create the documentary? to cast the assumption that Drager might have murdered a girl? to own all the items and continues to create income off of them?
Questions that make you go "hmmmmm"

Laurel Neustadter said...

The documentary is indeed haunting. I didn't see the landlord as bad; I saw the landlord as supportive. I thought the documentary was saying Darger was obsessed with the murdered girl, but I did not pick up the suggestion that Darger committed the murder. I need to watch the film again. There are obviously many layers to it.