In the Realms of the Unreal…Henry Darger’s Outsider Art

February 20, 2010

I was really sick this week.  I spent lots of time watching movies on Netflix. I came across an amazing documentary called In the Realms of the Unreal:The Mystery of Henry Darger.

I had no clue what to expect from the title, but I loved the whimsical illustration. This is the short Netflix synopsis:

“Featuring the voices of Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine and the work of talented animators, this documentary tells the story of Henry Darger, a reclusive janitor by day with few — if any — friends, but by night a literary artist with a unique vision. Darger’s resulting 15,000-page epic is a wonderland of imagination as it details the exploits of seven angelic sisters who lead a rebellion against men who enslave children.”

I wasn’t completely sold, but decided to watch it.  I was intrigued by the thought of a reclusive janitor doing art.

As I got into the film, I realized the documentary reflects Darger’s own work. He worked with mixed media, often collaging found objects.  The film is made up of historical documents, interviews, Darger’s art and narration. Although Darger produced a 15,000 page opus, no one knew he spent his life (outside janitorial work) creating it. He was very mysterious, and only three known photographs of the artist exist. Below, a photo of Darger’s one room Chicago apartment:

From the PBS website about the film:

In the Realms of the Unreal is  Jessica Yu’s inventive and loving rendition of Darger’s grim life and wildly creative work….Yu employs dreamlike animation of Darger’s art, a haunting musical score by Jeff Beal, and narration taken from Darger’s 15,000-page opus, In the Realms of the Unreal, read by actors Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine, to immerse the audience in Darger’s tempestuous alternate universe of innocence in epic struggle with wickedness. Out of the bleakest of existences, Darger obsessively fashioned a fantastic world where goodness and courage hold out — if just barely — over the treachery that lurks in men’s hearts. Darger held several jobs in his life. He’d been a farm laborer, soldier, janitor, dishwasher, and roller of gauze bandages. But no one would have thought of him as an artist, or anything other than what he seemed: a poor, unkempt, ill-educated, half-mad man lost in the fog of his own loneliness. If those around him failed to guess Darger’s secret life, they can hardly be blamed. Darger himself, in the massive unfinished autobiography he left behind, along with the single-spaced 15,000-page “novel” (and 8,000-page unfinished sequel), mentions his creative efforts only once in passing, even though those efforts must have absorbed his every free moment. Darger’s relationship to his own work — why he began it, what he expected from it — remains one of the great mysteries raised by his life story.”

And, about Darger’s Process:

“Darger combined cutouts from scrap images he collected — especially of young girls — with his own tracings, copies, and paintings in layered and collaged compositions that grew into 12-foot canvases that illustrated the equally layered and extravagant text. Entirely self-taught in true “outsider” fashion, Darger developed his own methods and techniques according to his need to tell his story in ever larger and more detailed scenarios. As early as the 1940s, he began using photocopies as a tool — a tremendous expense for someone of such meager means.”

The artwork in the film was  beautiful.  I was shocked I hadn’t heard more about Henry Darger before.  I guess the only real outsider artist I’m familiar with is Jean Dubuffet.

I’m about half way through the film, as I often pause it and look at the art. I get inspired, and jot down little notes.

Here’s some more Darger work:

Apparently, I’m not the only one inspired by Darger. Here’s a cool Darger Tattoo I found:

And Animal Collective pays tribute to Darger on their album cover for Feels:

From Wikipedia:

“Since his death in 1973 and the discovery of his massive opus, and especially since the 1990s, there have been many references in popular culture to Darger’s work—references by other visual artists (including, but not limited to, artists of comics and graphic novels); numerous songs by artists from Snakefinger (one of the earliest, in 1979) to Natalie Merchant (on her 2001 album Motherland) to the American indie band Wussy on their album Left For Dead (2007); a 1999 book-length poem, Girls on the Run, by John Ashbery; and a 2004 multimedia piece by choreographer Pat Graney incorporating Darger images. These artists have variously drawn from and responded to Darger’s artistic style, his themes (especially the Vivian Girls, the young heroines of Darger’s massive illustrated novel), and the events in his life. Jessica Yu‘s 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal details Darger’s life and artworks. Canadian hardcore band Fucked Up include a track entitled “Vivian Girls” on the 2006 album Hidden World, the lyrics of which deal with the violent plot and the nature of Darger’s fixation on the virginal main characters.[citation needed]

The Vivian Girls, an all-girl indie/punk/shoegaze trio from Brooklyn, took their name from Darger’s work.[20]

Comic book artist Scott McCloud refers to Darger’s work in his book Making Comics, while describing the danger artists encounter in the creation of a character’s back-story. McCloud says that complicated narratives can easily spin out of control when too much unseen information is built up around the characters.[21]

In her coffee table book, Influence, Mary-Kate Olsen cited Darger as one of her favorite painters.

The Simpsons references Darger in the episode “Lisa the Drama Queen“. Lisa Simpson goes to the American Folk Art Museum and Darger paintings can be seen.”

Thank you Henry Darger. Thank you for being exactly who you were.

See the trailer for In the Realms of the Unreal here:


2 Responses to “In the Realms of the Unreal…Henry Darger’s Outsider Art”

  1. Ariel said

    Wow… What a cool story and fascinating art! Being sick always seems to provide opportunity for great discoveries…

  2. sagehope said

    Hi, I found you by the “metaphysics” tag. I’m connecting with people who are on some level like minded. So I hope to speak to you in the near future.

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