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The Artist as Art

"Perhaps he would be lionized, perhaps he would be 'cured,' " says Yu.

These kinds of questions make Darger a fascinating figure for filmmakers and other artists. But what of the art itself? Curiously, when asked if they find the work moving, people who study Darger's art say yes in a roundabout fashion: Yes, it's moving that he created it, that this lonely man had so much inside him. Which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the work itself.

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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The written works of Darger are so extensive, and frankly so dull, that no one has read them in their entirety. His style is filled with little Victorian asides that address the "dear reader," a perpetual inflation of excitement reminiscent of bad adventure-writing aimed at little boys, and lots of rhetorical stuffing that sounds like a child trying to imitate the style of an adult. "The accounts of the numerous stirring scenes mentioned here will, we hope, become interesting and attractive as well as fascinating reading to the people of our nation, but also highly important and valuable though unreal," reads one passage.

It's Darger's visual work that is valued today. Brooke Anderson, a curator at the American Folk Art Museum in New York (where much of Darger's work resides), says it's top quality.

"We always have Darger on view," she says. "Certainly he is someone who is artistically extraordinarily strong."

Darger's technique was a mix of tracing and painting. He copied figures for his characters and used a photographic shop to blow them up to different sizes. He then added and subtracted details, notably adding little penises to the girls while subtracting their clothing. His strength wasn't drawing, but assembly.

Yu believes strongly in Darger's visual world, but it's interesting that her film uses animation to bring it alive.

"He tried to make his world complete and textured, with battle maps, lyrics to songs, and it struck me that if you put these elements together, they are the elements of a film," says Yu.

Over the years, a number of basic interpretations have congealed around Darger's art. It was, many seem to believe, a harmless self-therapy that released Darger from whatever compulsions toward children he may or may not have had. And its power lies in the very completeness that Yu was trying to underscore with animation: He made a world out of scratch, and our duty is to admire him for it, and enter into it if possible.

The composer Gustav Mahler once said that, for him, to write a symphony is "to construct a world." But the worlds that Mahler created, filled with hunting horns and waltzes and all the buzzing sounds of nature, sounded a lot like our world. Darger's world, though big and detailed and inventive, is closed off, self-contained, resistant. One reason that no one has ever read the complete works of Darger may simply be that spending time in his world yields nothing when we return to our own. It's interesting but nothing more.

Darger, posthumously, is not only flourishing as an "outsider artist," he's also emerged as the outsider artist par excellence, as much as that category fulfills certain prevalent fantasies in the "insider" art world. He never worked in the real art world, he never made any enemies or allied himself with factions, and he died before he was discovered. Which makes him ideal fodder for people who "interpret" art, given that he can't argue back, or articulate any meanings of his own work.

The discovery of his work, after his death, plays into another fantasy, the "something for nothing" thing that fascinates the mainstream art world, the desire to discover unknown, top-quality, marketable art, like diamonds lying on the ground. These daydreams of rich discovery (witness the fascination with stories about finding unknown masterpieces in the attic) are a recurrent obsession in the way we think about art, perhaps because they suggest an alternative path to fame.

And finally, Darger's loneliness is itself a fetishized commodity. It not only lets viewers feel something when looking at his art (how sad, it must have been, to be Henry Darger) but also plays into a long-standing, romantic fantasy that great artists suffer in isolation and are redeemed by posterity. But as John Berger points out in a book about Picasso, artistic loneliness isn't necessarily a virtue.

"He is lonely in the same way as a lunatic is lonely," Berger wrote of Picasso. "Because it seems to the lunatic that, since he never meets opposition, he can do anything." Picasso was a strong enough artist that he could flourish without the chastening benefit of opposition. The real tragedy of Darger's loneliness may be that it allowed him too much untrammeled creativity and too little need to connect with the larger world.

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