In the Realms of the Unreal (2004)

3 Jul

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our janitor where I work.  After a weekend of use my garbage is always much more full than my neighbors.  So on Mondays I joke to him that I worked hard on it for him when he comes to empty it.  I’m not sure that he understands me.  I don’t know if he cares that I nod and smile when I see him in the hallways.  I definitely don’t know if he’s an artist or a children’s book writer.

And that’s how it happened with Henry Darger.  He was a custodian for most of his life and went largely unnoticed.  Only three known photos existed of him at the time of his death.  His mother died when he was young and he was left to take care of his father until he was put into a nursing home.  From there Henry moved into an orphanage which was not a happy time for him.  Though things would get worse when he was moved to the poorly-named the Lincoln Assylum for Feeble-Minded Children.  He made several escape attempts after learning of his father’s death in Chicago.  Finally he was successful but learned that the Chicago of his childhood was not the Chicago he lived in now.  He began his custodial duties and his art.

Darger would go on to create a single-spaced, typed, 15,000 page book.  It was a tale of war where abused children fought against their oppressors and were led by the Vivian girls.  In addition to the book he wrote an autobiography and kept journals.  In addition to the enormous amount of writing he did he also created art.  He taught himself collage, tracing and then started to draw the Vivian girls in battle.  He would illustrate his book and create large works showing specific scenes. 

The movie about his life was interesting but I didn’t like it as much as the Mister.  In the documentary sections of the paintings are animated.  The Mister thought that this was necessary to hold the viewer’s attention for the entire 90 minutes.  I felt anxious to spend a bit more time looking at the art itself and not someone’s take on it.  Additionally, the director interviewed people who knew him.  Old neighbors and landlords talked about how little they knew about this man who had created this outsider art.

I thought it was interesting to hear from friends but they admittedly did not know him well and no one was aware of his art until he was moved into a medical facility where he would soon die.  I would have liked to have heard from experts in the field of outsider art.  And hearing a psychiatrist talk about him would have helped me to understand him better.  At this point I feel like I’ve watched a 90 minute preview for a movie that will really give me information.  Still, wanting to know more about the subject is a compliment to any documentary and as I said, the Mister enjoyed it.  If you like his work you might want to check it out for yourself.


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