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The Artist as Art

Henry Darger's Provocative Paintings and Tragic Life Inspire New Works

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2005; Page C01

The works of self-taught artist Henry Darger are the definition of that slightly condescending critical category known as the "interesting." You look at his phantasmagoric paintings, of naked little girls running through violent, lurid landscapes, and you think, this is fascinating. You read extracts from his 15,000-page novel, "In the Realms of the Unreal," and you think, how bizarre, how odd, how interesting.

Darger, who worked in total obscurity his entire life, painting, writing and noting in detail every facet of the weather in Chicago, has emerged since his death in 1973 as one of this country's best-known "outsider" artists. His paintings sell for prices that insider artists would envy. His life and work are subject to the flattering scrutiny of art historians, graduate students and biographers. And yet if you put aside the story of Henry Darger's life -- the tragedy, the loneliness, the immense, secret productivity -- and focus only on the work of Darger, all the adjectives that come to mind have a frustrating, slippery, elusive quality: It is curious, odd, creepy, bizarre. But does anyone find it moving?

Henry Darger's illustrations pair the innocence of children with the specter of violence. He is the subject of the documentary "In the Realms of the Unreal." (Wellspring Media)

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Perhaps it doesn't matter, and certainly the busy activity surrounding Darger and his work hasn't slowed a bit since he became a hot property in the 1990s. A documentary by Jessica Yu, "In the Realms of the Unreal," opens locally today. A dance piece by choreographer Pat Graney, based on Darger's work, will be presented at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland next weekend. Local playwright Michael Merino, who is associated with the Woolly Mammoth company, gave a reading of his new Darger-inspired work last month. And in recent years there have been biographies, exhibitions and plans for a major mainstream film based on Darger's life.

Darger was born in 1892 in Chicago to a German immigrant father and a woman from Wisconsin. When his mother died four years later, the little bit of family stability he may have known began to dissipate. His sister was put up for adoption, and in 1900, his father was placed in a poorhouse. Darger ended up in the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children a few years later, and his adolescence, recalled in a memoir he wrote in the 1960s, is one Dickensian chapter after another.

He eventually escaped the asylum and found work in Chicago as a janitor in a hospital. By 1912, the nondescript little man with a mustache was leading two lives in parallel -- a grim, workaday existence and an increasingly elaborate fantasy life, articulated in his endlessly expanding life project: a novel with illustrations he called "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."

The Vivian Girls were Christian princesses. The Glandeco-Angelinian war storm was an epic, 4 1/2-year contest between Christian nations and the Satan-worshiping Glandelinian empire -- which practiced child slavery, among other abominations. The whole thing took place on another planet, much larger and more populous than Earth and reachable, apparently, by streetcar. The language style reflects the boys' literature of Darger's youth, and the painted illustrations use tracings of children from the books and magazines that Darger obsessively collected and hoarded throughout his life.

"He looked like a beggar," Kiyoko Lerner says from her home in Chicago. Lerner and her late husband, Nathan, rented Darger a room for much of his life. "He took a walk every day. He'd look into every single garbage can in the neighborhood. He was extremely dirty and filthy. Nathan was told he should kick Henry out, but Nathan said no -- Henry, there's nothing wrong with him."

Yu's movie is based on Lerner's and others' memories of Darger. His life, though lived in great solitude, was inextricably bound up with the Lerners, who were themselves artists and musicians, and tolerant of odd cranks like Darger. And it was Nathan Lerner who, when he cleaned out Darger's room after the artist died, discovered the vast trove of "The Realms of the Unreal" and other massive projects (including an autobiography), and set about making them known to the wider world.

Yu's film argues convincingly that Darger's work exists and is now appreciated because of the rare circumstances of his life with the bohemian and tolerant Lerners, who gave him enough stability and enough freedom to work under the radar and then had the good sense to preserve his life's project.

Merino, whose play "Artist and Protector of Children: The Life of Henry Darger" focuses on Darger's life through his diaries, describes his encounter with Darger's work this way: "It was mesmerizing, disturbing, these strange tensions between innocence and danger and foreboding." Like Yu, he was impressed with Darger's basic stability, even as other scholars have speculated that Darger may have been a pedophile and even a child murderer (based only on his work, which is filled with naked children who suffer sadistic violence).

"I tried to steer away from that," says Merino. "He was working through his issues in his art. As an uber-Catholic he used his art and his writing as his penance to exorcise these conflicts. He was somebody who dedicated his life to art, who was obviously mentally ill, but functioned, paid his bills, held a job."

But, Merino adds, he was "not somebody I'd want to baby-sit my niece."

Yu also avoids the pedophilia issue (arguing that there is no evidence for the claim). Like Merino, she is fascinated by the balance between Darger's marginal status and the stability of his artistic life, his peculiar mix of productivity and tragic isolation. And her film raises fascinating "what if?" issues. If Darger hadn't lived in an earlier time, if he lived today in a society that is hyper-vigilant about anything involving sexuality and children, how would he be received?

And would his isolation be tolerated, or cry out for social service intervention?

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