In The Realms Of The Unreal

Little is known about Henry Darger, the reclusive, so-called "outsider artist" who died in an impoverished obscurity unusual even by the standards of artists who achieve posthumous fame. Born in 1892, raised first as a ward of Chicago's Mission of Our Lady of Mercy boys' home, then the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, Darger, a devout (and possibly...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Little is known about Henry Darger, the reclusive, so-called "outsider artist" who died in an impoverished obscurity unusual even by the standards of artists who achieve posthumous fame. Born in 1892, raised first as a ward of Chicago's Mission of Our Lady of Mercy boys' home, then the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, Darger, a devout (and possibly mentally ill) Catholic, spent his days attending Mass and working as a hospital janitor. His nights were spent in the dusty isolation of his boardinghouse room, where, without the benefit of formal training, he developed the artistic skill necessary put onto paper the fantastical pictures and epic stories — all involving the adventures of brave and often nude prepubescent little-girl warriors — that filled his head. Only after Darger's death in 1973 did anyone find out what he'd been up to all those years. Darger's legacy was astonishing: Along with hundreds of drawings, tracings and watercolors, including painted murals measuring up to 12 feet in length, Darger's room was filled with journals, a memoir and what many now believe to be the longest novel ever written: In the Realms of the Unreal, a 15,000-page, hand-bound account of how the seven saintly Vivian Girls led a child-slave revolt against the wicked Glandelinians. Determined to bring his strange and often beautiful inner world to life without the benefit of art-establishment commentary and with little to go on beyond Darger's own account of his life, filmmaker Jessica Yu crafted a deliriously spellbinding documentary from the raw material of Darger's own work. Instinctively understanding that, like the work of William Blake, Darger's visual art is inseparable from the complex mythology of his writings, Yu animated a number of Darger's paintings and set them to passages from Darger's novel. She intertwines these adventures with readings from Darger's memoir, whose real-life events are illustrated, like Darger's fantasies, with pictures from period children's books, magazines, pamphlets and newspapers. The parallels are extraordinary and disturbing. Yu is careful not to make the mistake of the Darger enthusiasts who, in an attempt to admit this fringe artist further into the mainstream, overlook the darker aspects of his work, notably his preoccupation with disemboweling, dismemberment and genital confusion that may or may not be anything more than simple naivete. The result is an astonishingly complex, striking original portrait of an artist whose deeply personal art, intended for no one but God and himself, demands to be treated on its own terms.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Little is known about Henry Darger, the reclusive, so-called "outsider artist" who died in an impoverished obscurity unusual even by the standards of artists who achieve posthumous fame. Born in 1892, raised first as a ward of Chicago's Mission of Our Lady… (more)

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