Near the end of In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger, David Berglund describes a visit he paid to his 83-year-old neighbor Henry Darger at Saint Augustine’s Home for the Aged in the early 70s. Darger had been moved there from his little third-floor apartment in Lincoln Park, where he’d lived as a poor recluse for 41 years, working menial jobs and quietly finishing a 15,000-page epic novel and a long series of elaborate paintings to illustrate it. Berglund and Darger’s landlord, photographer and designer Nathan Lerner, had discovered the work as they cleaned out the old man’s apartment. When Berglund told Darger that he’d seen some of the artwork and thought it was beautiful, Darger was stunned. “It was like you sucker punch somebody, you hit ’em in the stomach and they gasp a bit,” says Berglund. “And he just looked up and he said, ‘Too late now.'”
Darger died in 1973. Since then his work has been shown all around the country; in the last ten years especially, his mythical story of the Vivian Girls, child princesses doing battle against their adult oppressors, has made him one of America’s best-known outsider artists, and his scrolls of their harrowing adventures are now worth millions. Jessica Yu, who won an Oscar for her short film Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien (1996), got a chance to film Darger’s dim, tiny apartment on Webster before it was finally emptied in 2000. Her documentary, which opens this week at the Music Box and the Century 12 and CineArts 6, begins in Darger’s room, returns to his birth in 1892, and structures the narrative as a chronology, using his undated artwork to comment on the events of his youth.
As with many outsider artists, the lack of information about Darger is part of his mystique, and Yu often seems more interested in perpetuating the mystery than in dispelling it: periodically she edits together voice-overs from witnesses saying they don’t know the answer to a question or giving contradictory responses, even down to the pronunciation of Darger’s name (which has a hard g).
Yu purposely avoided two elaborate and careful critical books about Darger, Michael Bonesteel’s Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings (2000) and John M. MacGregor’s Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal (2002). “I wanted people to experience Henry’s work as he did, and make up their own minds about it, rather than having it be told to them as something definitive,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle last month. That’s a fair strategy, though it has its pitfalls: minutes into the film we’re told that Darger left behind only three photos of himself, though a fourth appears in both Bonesteel’s and MacGregor’s books. And Yu admits that she gave up on finishing Darger’s hulking epic, “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion,” which Bonesteel needed six months just to skim.
Despite the mountain of writing Darger left behind—including a second novel that’s 8,500 pages long and a 5,084-word memoir mostly devoted to a firsthand account of a tornado—the facts of his life are sparse. When he was three his mother died giving birth to his sister, who was put up for adoption, and eventually his crippled father sent him to a Catholic home for boys. By his account Darger witnessed Dickensian cruelties at the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois, as a teenager. After his father died in 1907 he escaped from the facility and returned to Chicago, working at various Catholic institutions until his retirement. The church provided most of the structure in his lonely life, and he was a devoted servant, attending mass several times a day.
Yu brings great imagination and energy to the task of integrating Darger’s traumatic childhood and lonely adulthood with the fantastic visions he painted. Figures from his paintings are digitally animated against his backdrops and even make unexpected appearances in stock footage, wandering around the streets of Chicago. Little Dakota Fanning (Man on Fire) supplies the voice-over narration, her girlish tones eerily evoking Darger’s troubled state of mind. He fetishized a 1911 photo, cut from the Chicago Daily News, of a five-year-old who had been kidnapped and murdered, and when he somehow lost it, the little girl became a character in his book, the martyred Annie Aronburg. The many panel paintings he left behind show armies of little girls, some naked and sporting male genitalia, innocently disporting themselves or, more often, wielding weapons and fleeing savage attackers.
Darger’s work presents a problem for any filmmaker: he combined 24-inch-tall sheets of paper to make scenes as wide as 109 inches, which means that Yu, framing her movie at a standard aspect ratio of 1:85, can encompass only about 42 lateral inches at a time. Naturally there’s a lot of panning across the paintings, and in one case Yu pulls back suddenly to illustrate how large they are, but there’s really no way to appreciate Darger’s dynamic compositions and commanding sense of scale on a movie screen. And unfortunately the individual figures in his work, traced from photos he found in newspapers and magazines, aren’t as impressive as their arrangement or the Warholian weirdness of their mass production. Like any commercially minded documentary maker, Yu tries to create as much motion as possible, and the digital animation begins to dominate by the midpoint of the film. What seems a reasonable innovation at the outset becomes obnoxious by the end.
At one point Kiyoko Lerner, Nathan Lerner’s widow and Darger’s artistic executor, recalls a remark her husband made about their strange tenant. “He said, ‘Just because there’s questions, that does not mean there are answers.’ And he took questions as a statement.” Unlike MacGregor, who likens Darger’s mental state to that of a serial killer, Yu wisely leaves blank the spaces in Darger’s life story that can’t be filled. But as Taylor Hackford’s recent biopic of Ray Charles reminded me, the answers about an artist are usually found not in his work but in his going about his work. In this respect Yu’s decision to bypass the literature about Darger is unfortunate, because it contains so many fascinating details about his source materials, methods, creative problems, and aesthetic development. Because he considered himself a poor draftsman, his figures came from comic strips, newspaper photos, coloring books, and advertisements, first in the form of cutouts and later as photographic enlargements that he traced with carbon paper. Comparison with the images he borrowed shows how ingeniously Darger overcame his lack of professional training. Yu’s portrait of Darger, which clocks in at 82 minutes, skims over the only aspect of his life that commands respect: his craft.
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A more demanding but ultimately more rewarding portrait of an artist outside the mainstream is Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch (1974), a Norwegian TV movie nearly three hours long that screens all week at the Gene Siskel Film Center in a restored print. Like Darger, Munch (1863-1944) lost his mother at a very young age and grew up in fervently Christian surroundings that complicated his sexuality. He, however, had two things Darger didn’t—money and society—and while his eerie domestic studies may have scandalized the bourgeoisie of his native Christiania (now Oslo), he exhibited his work throughout Europe in the late 19th century and enjoyed critical recognition in Germany, where paintings like The Scream influenced the expressionist movement.
Watkins divides his narrative into two facets: a documentary voice-over in English that examines Munch in a calm, academic tone, and dramatic scenes in Norwegian with nonprofessional actors, who often stare mutely at the viewer like characters in Munch’s paintings. This weird dichotomy between sight and sound allows Watkins to observe Munch from without and within. The narration locates him historically, observing trends in the European art world and citing notable world events that give a wider sense of the times. There’s also a good deal of information about poverty, child labor, prostitution, and women’s suffrage. But as this chronological lecture unfolds on the sound track, Watkins also weaves together dramatic scenes from Munch’s personal life, blending the past and present with fluid free-associative editing. The 22-year-old painter’s torrid affair with a married woman is intercut with feverish scenes of his mother and sister dying from tuberculosis years earlier, and accounts of the genesis of his paintings are haunted by flashbacks from his sorrowful childhood and love life.
More than twice as long as In the Realms of the Unreal, the Munch movie has time to sit still, and uses it well, sticking with the canvases and reviewing Munch’s torturous process of self-discovery. Watkins closely follows the development of his deathbed study The Sick Child, observing Munch’s search for the figures and his almost impulsive decision near the end to replace a window to one side with a patch of black. His materials are usually specified in the narration—even the canvas size is reported in one case—and there’s a fine tactile sense of an artist pursuing his craft. The scrape of a paintbrush dominates the sound track when Munch is working something out, and later, when he begins to experiment with lithography, Watkins includes a long close-up of the chemicals eating into the metal plate. A beautiful sequence near the end shows an inked plate with Munch’s self-portrait being wiped down again and again with solvent. It reminded me that an artist’s true life struggle is with the empty canvas, a self-portrait that’s continuously being remade.