Revolutions of the Night, a new documentary about famed outsider artist Henry Darger, begins like a horror movie, as two people investigate the ruins of a long-shuttered state sanatorium for children in central Illinois. With just a flashlight to lead them through the dark, the explorers observe widespread debris, then come upon a room with spattered blood dried on the walls. One senses immediately that terrible things have happened here, and several historians who appear later in the film confirm that children were mistreated at the institution throughout its existence. This miserable environment provides a clue, director Mark Stokes argues, into the psychology of Darger, who spent several years in the sanatorium until he ran away from it in adolescence. As an adult living in Chicago, in a little rented room in Lincoln Park, Darger spent decades chronicling an imaginary universe in both prose and paintings, never sharing his creations with anyone. Only after his death in 1973, at age 81, was his output discovered; many would praise the work for its disturbing, nightmarish qualities.
Stokes never questions whether Darger was a great artist, though several of the interviewees, who range from art historians to Darger’s neighbors, question whether he was sane. The film’s subtitle, The Enigma of Henry Darger, refers to the mystery of what inspired him to create so prolifically when he didn’t intend his work to be seen. Stokes concludes that Darger wrote and painted compulsively to mitigate the pain of having been abandoned as a child and endlessly abused in the state sanatorium. The documentary’s cyclical structure—which shuffles between Darger’s childhood, solitary adulthood, and posthumous success—keeps returning to his years at the sanatorium, as though Darger was unable to escape his memories of the place.
That theory is certainly borne out by Darger’s work. In his imaginary world, leaders of an ignoble nation begin to enslave children, and this atrocity sets off a world war in which millions perish. The film relates how, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, children in American sanatoriums for the mentally disabled were forced to perform manual labor; sanatorium staff were so brutal in their corporal punishment that children often suffered lasting injuries. Revolutions of the Night is worthwhile not only as biography but as a lesson about this shameful chapter in America’s history of treating mental health. Darger may have channeled his traumatic experience into art, but Stokes makes you wonder how many other institutionalized children of Darger’s generation were lucky enough to find catharsis or escape. v