Henry Darger has become a celebrity of sorts within the last decade or so, providing dealers and collectors with another cash cow in the Outsider Art genre (a genre that used to mean work done by artists outside of the mainstream, but now is a genre where critics and curators hold the final say on who is really an “Outsider Artist”). He was a hidden genius and has also, like Kafka, given hope to those whose one last shot at an audience will have to come through a posthumous discovery.
In The Realms of the Unreal provides a brief overview of Darger’s life, from early childhood through to his death and, most importantly, post-mortem, when the true nature of the man and his life’s work was discovered. To all the world, Darger was a loner and most likely a loser. He spent a good deal of his childhood in a Catholic youth home, placed there by his father when he was no longer able to care for the boy. His mother had died shortly after childbirth. Ironically, Darger later spent time in the same nursing home where he placed his father as his health declined. A janitor at a Chicago Hospital, friendly but not very much so with the neighbors in his apartment building, Darger was probably invisible even when looking someone in the eye. That apartment was his refuge, a haven for delving into his deepest creative life. His neighbors, with whom he probably barely spoke, nonetheless looked after him; it was they who discovered his genius while cleaning out Darger’s apartment after his move to the nursing home. His interior life was a rich as it was obsessive and, quietly, that world produced a singular style of work centered around a single story, one that waited for strangers to show to the world, strangers responsible for his discovery, the same people who thought him odd, heard him talk at night to himself in various voices of both sexes.
His life’s work, the creatively staggering The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, was begun in 1940, and continued until his death in 1973. He incorporated fairy-tale, fantasy, military history, and his experiences as a youth into, literally, an entire new world, one that only he inhabited, one that might have died with him. With hundreds of battle scenes (each army with their own flags and uniforms, all created by Darger, and civil War buff) and odd watercolors of hermaphrodite children (there is some hint in the film that Darger was unaware of female anatomy), he also used his art to tell the story. It is this mixed media style, with its obvious innate sense of composition, that is truly staggering. Amazing too is his seemingly singular lifelong obsession with the story. He most likely spent his days on the menial job dreaming of the V-Girls; he may have even acted out their exploits once safely at home. Several former neighbors report in the film of having heard various male and female voices coming from Darger’s apartment, though he never received any visitors.
In addition to the hundreds of notebooks piled in his room containing The Story of the Vivian Girls, there were also several volumes, decades upon decade’s worth, or notebooks devoted to another passion: the daily weather. While on the outside, it seemed that Henry Darger was an inconsequential man shuffling through his days, on the inside he was bursting with stories and ideas that, though partially informed by whatever childhood trauma and mental challenges he faced, were as developed and executed as if by the hand of a master. In his way, he knew exactly what he was doing.
Written and Directed by Jessica Yu, the film moves amiably among chronological narration of Darger’s life, imagined sequences from The Vivian Girls, and interviews with his neighbors and landlords. Larry Pine serves as Darger’s voice, and Dakota Fanning has a duel role as narrator and Vivian Girl. The interview with landlord Kiyoko Lerner is especially revealing. Her obvious artistic temperament and curious eye was the crucial piece in Darger’s work not only being found, but appreciated enough as a unique effort worth preserving.
In The Realms of the Unreal fascinates and gives hope to all who secretly hoard their painting and writing. Maybe one of your neighbor’s kids will visit a yard sale some day and make you immortal.