Tuesday, March 5, 2013

In the Realms of the Unreal

I've had a DVD from Netflix sitting on my bedroom floor for over a month now, and a few nights ago I finally got around to popping it into the player: I was glad I did! The film was the documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal, directed by Jessica Yu.

In the Realms of the Unreal is a unique look at the life and work of Henry Darger (1892–1973), a man who worked as a janitor by day and by night was a prolific writer and painter, the hero of his own vast novels. His mother died when he was young, and his father died after Darger was institutionalized. He later escaped the institution and returned to Chicago. Though fully capable of caring for himself, Darger was certainly eccentric (and possibly autistic, but not mentally ill). He lived in almost complete isolation. The people at his church and in his apartment building were vaguely aware of his existence, but for the most part his relationship with the world was what Yu termed "mutual indifference."

When Darger was moved into a Catholic mission to be cared for at the end of his life, his landlords Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner came across his huge body of work: "four unpublished manuscripts comprising more than thirty thousand pages of text; more than three hundred watercolor paintings that are often longer than nine feet; and thousands of ephemera Darger collected and used in his artistic process" (The Henry Darger Study Center).

Nathan Lerner was a photographer, and immediately recognized the unusual beauty and worth of Darger's art. After Darger's death the Lerners remained in charge of the estate and advocated for it so well that Darger is now internationally known. His work is considered the most famous example of outsider art.

Pinned Image
"At Sunbeam Creek, are with little girl refugees again in peril from forest fires..." by Henry Darger

Darger's most famous book spans 15,145 pages and is titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. It is the story of a vast war between enslaved children and their oppressors, the evil Glandelinians.

Darger also wrote an autobiography/novel ("Thank God!" says Yu - we would know next to nothing about his life if not for that) called The History of My Life. Only about 206 pages deal with his life - the other 4,672 tell the story of the charmingly named twister "Sweetie Pie" (Wikipedia).

Never formally trained, Darger often traced his figures from magazine pictures which he clipped, repeating his favorite images throughout his works - you might even recognize the Coppertone Girl or Little Annie Rooney. His use of colors is extraordinary, and the paintings have a strange beauty to them. Part of their strangeness stems from the fact that he frequently depicted the Vivian Girls with penises. (It is unclear if he was even aware that girls are physically different from boys.)

Director Jessica Yu spent five years studying Darger and creating her documentary. The DVD has a fascinating interview with her where she talks about her storytelling choices and her own perception of Darger's life. She chose to tell the story almost entirely with pieces of Darger's autobiography, excerpts from The Realms, and his illustrations (which have been animated). Dakota Fanning narrates portions of the film with uncanny maturity. She is an appropriate choice given that she was about the same age as Darger's heroic Vivian Girls: when the film was released in 2004, she was only ten years old.

Much of Henry Darger's life and mind remains mysterious in spite of the volume of his work, and Yu does not attempt to resolve all the mysteries with easy answers. There are no art critics or psychologists interviewed in her documentary, just Darger's own naïve, passionate, unselfconscious voice interspersed with the narrative. There are moments of real darkness here - and real beauty, too. Yu's film is certainly not trying to be the definitive biography, but as an introduction to Darger's work it is excellent.

For a more thorough traditional biography, see John M. MacGregor's 2002 book Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal. For more about the art, see Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, edited by Michael Bonesteel. The American Folk Art Museum has a large collection in its Henry Darger Study Center. Today Darger's works sell for more than $80,000 - amazing when you consider that during his life he was unable to spend five dollars a month extra to own a dog, and that he died in the same poorhouse as his father.

Side note:
This documentary  reminded me of Séraphine (starring Yolande Moreau), a beautiful film about the life of a French painter Séraphine de Senlis (her gorgeous paintings are examples of "naïve art", but considering her later institutionalization you could probably consider her an outsider artist as well). Séraphine is available streaming on Netflix, but In the Realms of the Uncanny is only available on DVD.

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