Innocence and Inner Experience

"This volume I hope I can truthfully say has scenes and instance which no other story of usual size in the world may contain, either in fiction or reality. Things that might be comical, sad, and horrifying. Let the reader follow every event and adventure, and then he can, if he sets his mind and heart on it, take it on as if he himself was an actual participator. The author writes the scenes in this volume as if he had experienced them himself." – Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal

Henry Darger was an invisible man. For most of his life Darger worked as a janitor in Chicago's Catholic hospitals, scrubbing floors and silently enduring abuse from the sharp-tongued nuns who supervised him. Although Darger may have been barely noticed by the nuns and neighbors in the various Lincoln Park-area apartments he inhabited, his mind was alive with a mythology of his own design.

Darger, who died in 1973, devised a complex imaginary world in which an epic war was fought between Good and Evil – innocent, brave children and the adults who tried to enslave them. He brought that world to life by writing a novel, 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, that eventually grew to 15,000 pages, and illustrated it on hundreds of huge canvasses made from sheets of butcher paper glued together. He kept that world a secret until he was close to death, when his landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, discovered Darger's life's work. Stunned at what they had witnessed, Nathan Lerner decided that the world had to see the invisible man.

Starting from Scratch

Henry Darger created an intricate world in which seven innocent Vivian Girls were persecuted by a group of godless, child-enslaving men.
Filmmaker Jessica Yu was similarly taken aback when she was first shown Darger's preserved apartment. Yu's amazement and sense of wonder infuses her documentary about Darger's life and art, In the Realms of the Unreal. Like Jonathan Caouette's groundbreaking, innovative autobiography Tarnation, which appeared at Sundance in 2004 alongside Realms, Yu pushed the envelope in terms of structure and technique. Yu used Darger's own words, read by actor Larry Pine, to tell his story, and cast a then 7-year-old Dakota Fanning (whom Yu describes as a real life Vivian Girl) as the film's narrator. She animated Darger's paintings, bringing his world to life the way he may have seen it, and captures the various and often contradictory perceptions of the small circle of friends that Darger had collected toward the end of his life.

The nature of Darger's work and technique make innovation practically a requirement in telling his story. "It was invention born of necessity," she says by phone from her Los Angeles home. Yu had little of the traditional biographical material a documentary filmmaker relies on – just Darger's autobiography, plus conflicting testimonies of his few living acquaintances. "No newsreels, no photos, and hardly any people who knew him – certainly no one who was close to him. I think out of limitation there's a weird freedom. Once you stop resisting it, you end up embracing this idea that you have to be more creative. And also, Darger was so inventive himself. He was so resourceful, he would just grab things from books and images, magazines ... just do whatever he could to create his own work. I sort of took a little inspiration from that." She faced a cinematic challenge of the highest order, one that would lead her on a five-year odyssey.

The only thing that Yu could be certain of was the uncertainty of Henry Darger. As the film begins, she overlays the voices of the few people who knew him against establishing shots of a crucifix suspended in air and images of his workspace. At first, the collective perception of Darger as a mystery is conveyed through the voices of his ex-neighbors, with "I don't know" being the general consensus. Pine, as Darger, introduces In the Realms of the Unreal as Yu closes in on a Darger creation: a naked girl with butterfly wings. And with a slight flap of the wings, she launches into the story of Lincoln Park's invisible outsider artist.

Yu had already won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 1997 for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, a portrait of a writer who was paralyzed by polio yet found an escape through writing. Her next documentary, The Living Museum, portrayed residents of a mental institution who formed their own art community.

Outside In

It was the artwork of mental patients, particularly that of late 19th-century artist Adolph Volfli, from which the term "outsider art" originated, though the term has widened to include almost any untrained or naive artist working outside the mainstream art world. Darger's oeuvre, with its vast mythology, is one of the most recognizable examples of the art form. "I'm not actually an outsider art aficionado," says Yu. "A lot of times you do something and it leads to something else. I had seen Darger's work in '92 at the L.A. County Museum of Art. There were a lot of outsider artists in this but his stood out."

Yu was struck by the sense of innocence and a lack of irony she found inherent in his paintings. "A lot of these sort of images of innocent little girls, like the Coppertone Girl, a lot of artists appropriate those kind of images," she says. "But they're always making some statement about the loss of innocence or about American society. In his paintings there was none of that. I had never seen that kind of perversity and innocence mixed together in a single vision. That really struck me and I was very curious about this person. Then it wasn't until years later, maybe six or seven years later when I was giving a talk about that other film ["The Living Museum"], a man who was actually a journalist in the audience asked me if I heard of Darger."

The journalist, Ted Shen, was friends with Kiyoko Lerner. "The next day he picked me up and we went over there," she recalls. "And there I am standing in Henry Darger's room. It was just one of those very lucky things, and it was probably the moment of standing in his room that I thought ... I was just dying to make a film about him.

"The room was still filled with stuff. Everything in it was something he saw, and he wanted as part of his environment. And that room – which of course is no longer together – there's a very particular vantage point which is the chair behind the worktable. There's all this painting material and everything, and then he would face the stained-glass windows and the crucifix. You really get a sense of how he experienced the room, and that just made me very curious about him. Who is this person? How did he come to create this work that had this odd sensibility? And where did these themes come from?"

Darger was born into poverty in Chicago on April 12, 1892. According to his autobiographical writings, he claims to have been a child prodigy of sorts, well-read and ahead of his class. He had somewhat of a superiority complex, referring to his various adversaries, especially adults, as "dust beneath my feet." At age 8, his ailing father was sent to live in a poor house, and Darger was sent to a boys home, the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy. Darger, who had little social contact beyond his father, tried to amuse his peers by playing the clown. But the funny noises he made had the opposite effect on his classmates, and he became their object of derision. Darger wrote that his teacher joined in the ostracizing. Before he reached puberty, Darger had experienced universal rejection.

Darger was eventually sent to a work farm 162 miles from home, but escaped at age 17 and made his way back to Chicago. His father was long since dead, but he found his first job as a janitor and soon began work on his magnum opus. "He seems to have in a short period of time, deliberately pulled away from the world," says Yu.

Meet the Vivian Girls

"What's interesting to me about him," says Yu, "is that if you look at the themes of his work and what happened to him in real life – it's almost like he was able, through his artwork, to turn all the terrible things that happened to him into adventure. Just like the Vivian Girls. You know how when he was a kid and he was thrown on this train and sent to asylum? It was this horrible experience, and it happens again and again to the Vivian Girls. But they're always like, 'Oh my goodness, what an adventure we're starting.'"

The Vivian Girls were his protagonists, seven angelic sisters who were the age of the children that Darger went to school with when he was separated from his father. As Darger was "enslaved" at the work farm, the Vivian Girls were enslaved by anti-Christian adult males, The Glandelinians. Darger looked to the Civil War as a model for the Glandelinian soldiers and the battles they fought in the child-slave rebellion, but he identified himself with the Vivian Girls.

When it came time to illustrate the story, Darger compensated for his arrested artistic development by borrowing images he collected from newspapers, coloring books and other miscellaneous sources, and created his own clip-art library. Darger copied and traced, experimented with collage overlay, and pinched pennies in order to have particular favorites photo-enlarged. He created an ancestor to the modern era's graphic novel.

But Henry Darger is less known for his techniques than for his decision to give the Vivian Girls penises. The theories behind the gender confusion of Darger's subjects are numerous: he was a closet pedophile, he was trying to connect with the sister who was put up for adoption after his mother dies in childbirth, he never had any sexual experience or guidance during puberty. Darger wrote about his great affection for children, and disappointment at his rejection when he tried to adopt. But as Darger historian John MacGregor pointed out, Darger's later writings and paintings became more graphic, with gruesome descriptions of violence against little girls and references to rape.

It hasn't been determined whether Darger knew exactly what rape was, however. Kiyoko Lerner, who would become Darger's champion after her husband's death, tells a story in the film about Darger knocking on her door wanting to see Mr. Lerner. Darger explains that he had been raped by a "beautiful 17-year-old girl," who also took his wallet. It was Darger's way of coping, turning a mugging into more of an adventure.

"This guy definitely had an incredible amount of ambition," says Yu. "While there are parts of his story that are tragic and very sad, the other side of it is that he was incredibly bold as a person and as an artist, if you think about it. Beside the ambition of trying to create this huge masterwork, the idea that he was trying to see if he could live satisfyingly in a world that was purely out of his own imagination. That's a pretty audacious thing to do. 'The outside world sucks, and maybe I can do better, maybe I can live without it.' I think that's something that's sort of undeniably bold."

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