PRINT January 2005


Henry Darger

WHEN EIGHTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD Henry Darger died in 1973 and his secret trove of art and writings was unearthed by his nosy Chicago landlords, the term “outsider art” was new, having been proposed only the previous year by art historian Roger Cardinal as an English alternative to art brut. At the time, the work of artists like Adolf Wölfli, Simon Rodia, and the Rev. Howard Finster, to the extent that it was known at all, was effectively stigmatized as a form of arts and crafts practiced by unusually creative religious fanatics, conspiracy theorists, and the mentally ill. But the discovery of Darger’s epic and unschooled but aesthetically rigorous project, which happened to use contemporary-art techniques like appropriation while paying equal respect to the kind of sentimental illustration that passes for art among grandmas and Republicans, gave outsider art a fresh exemplar of unimpeachable grandeur and potentially massive popular appeal. Still, there remained the tricky problem of what to make of those naked, penis-sporting, underage girls who populate 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, the fifteen-thousand-page illustrated novel to which Darger devoted his adult life.

It’s taken thirty-one years for someone to figure out a way to position Darger as the new Grandma Moses, but in filmmaker Jessica Yu (who won an Oscar in 1997 for her nonfiction short Breathing Lessons) he has been afforded an enormously effective ambassador. In the Realms of the Unreal, Yu’s Academy Award–short-listed documentary feature (which recently opened in New York and San Francisco), is a cozy, ingratiating introduction to Darger, yet it doesn’t shortchange the peculiarities that permitted such a free fall of fascinating aesthetic decisions in his work. Yu’s inspiration would appear to be the great documentarian Errol Morris, and her film has the voluptuous, flower-bed-like palette and quickly paced, wandering construction of his recent work, in particular 1997’s Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.

Yu’s multifaceted film is at once a recounting of Darger’s threadbare biography, an intelligent but plainspoken analysis of his achievement, and a cinematic adaptation of his oeuvre. Darger’s life story, which follows a classic Depression-era narrative from a lonely, underprivileged childhood spent in orphanages, boys’ homes, and a hospital for the “feeble-minded” through a wanderlust-filled early adulthood to his now-familiar late life as a grizzled, unassuming janitor and clandestine artist, is delineated in bits and pieces throughout the film via a handful of photographs, stock footage, and interview snippets with acquaintances. Simultaneously, Yu lays out the far more elaborate, ultraviolent, and emotionally traumatic narrative within Darger’s massive body of interconnected artworks. In a nutshell, The Story of the Vivian Girls depicts a long and bloody war between seven heroic, prepubescent sisters and the evil Glandelinians, a race of warlords who practice child enslavement. In what amounts to an animated fiction featurette within the larger nonfiction film, Yu crops, pans, and introduces motion into several dozen of Darger’s paintings while the voice of classy child actress Dakota Fanning (a Vivian girl stand-in) narrates. The animations themselves are quite slight and mechanical—imagine a more inert, twitching episode of South Park—but their effect is surprisingly lovely and hip. Bleeding through this elegant, parsed-out cartoon are shots of the period magazines and newspaper clippings that served as Darger’s source material—a tactic that successfully adds a rich, compensatory inner life to the artist’s rather static, ho-hum, day-to-day existence and makes a solid case for Darger’s work as an enterprise as complexly connected to popular culture as any present-day Yale MFA’s.

Interestingly, while falling short of answering the question of why an apparent nonpedophile would give his androgynous girl protagonists so many nude scenes, Yu does deactivate the presumption that a grown man drawing naked kids automatically implies a lurking eroticism. If never quite substantiated, the film’s argument that the superreligious and possibly lifelong virgin Darger was simply unfamiliar with female anatomy tempers certain suspicions, and evidence presented from his diaries that he was a constant self-incriminator who sought God’s forgiveness for sins as minuscule as failing to set down a drinking glass properly will likely serve as satisfactory penance for all but the most sex-phobic contingent of the Christian Right. In the Realms of the Unreal configures Darger as a kind of weirder, crankier Lewis Carroll or J.M. Barrie— a man whose fetish for children is untraceable enough to be deemed an acceptable fuel for the controlled blaze of his imagination. With that hot spot in his otherwise fanciful work rendered as lukewarm as possible, and with his vision in the sympathetic, gifted hands of Jessica Yu, a collaborator as heaven-sent to Darger’s work as Peter Jackson was to J.R.R. Tolkien’s, this strangest and most ambitious of outsider artists may well follow the likes of R. Crumb and Norman Rockwell into popular lore and leave the admiring but standoffish contemporary art world in the dust.

Dennis Cooper is a contributing editor of Artforum.