After yesterday’s Maya Deren documentary, we’re lingering in New York a moment longer before setting off. It was there that I first encountered the world of outsider artist Henry Darger in the city’s Folk Art Museum. After exhibits of naive colonial paintings and Amish quilts, it was quite a trip to be confronted with excerpts from Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal, great sprawling depictions of hermaphroditic children in violent, anguished battle with dark forces in Civil War uniforms, accompanied by pages of typed text, all spilling out of enormous volumes which represented just a fraction of the artist’s work.
As was the case with visionary artist A.G. Rizzoli, it was only after Darger’s death that his hitherto private, utterly self-enclosed creations were revealed to the eyes of strangers. Jessica Yu’s 2004 documentary, also entitled In the Realms of the Unreal, is an amazing accomplishment, considering there were only resolutely unmoving images and text to work with as source material. The drawings are ingeniously animated, sometimes even taking over period newsreel footage. The film vividly illustrates the restricted geographical and social scope of Darger’s daily life, circumscribed by a few Chicago blocks and peopled by a small group of acquaintances (he had at most one or two true friends in his life). His imagination, on the other hand, roamed over vast, troubled panoramas and produced one of the most extensive literary products in history.
Threads of testimony from neighbours and (the few) others who knew him diverge and converge in their recollections – how his name was pronounced, where he sat in church, the exact nature of his mental turmoil. “I guess if you’re poor they call you crazy, if you’re rich they call you eccentric,” says a neighbour (and plenty of the people I’ve written about here support that theory). The depiction of his appalling childhood, which he ever after attempted to process in his life and work, is heart-wrenching (seriously, if you’re having a bad day, come back to this later).