The story of outsider artist Henry Joseph Darger first became known in the art world a couple decades ago, and has been immortalized in art exhibitions, theater productions, poetry and even a Natalie Merchant song. Now, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu presents a documentary on the artist, bringing Darger’s story to the big screen.
Yu’s film is the culmination of seven years of research into the life and work of Darger (1892-1973), a janitor from Chicago who spent decades crafting his own fantasy world within the confines of his studio apartment. By day Darger scrubbed church floors. At night, he worked on a fantastical story about a group of young girls who rise up against the male soldiers who’ve enslaved them. The manuscript, entitled 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, is 15,000 typed pages, accompanied by hundreds of colorful watercolor illustrations (double-sided and more than 10 feet long), dozens of bound journals, an autobiography and collaged source material.
The film interweaves a biography of Darger’s life with excerpts from Vivian Girls. Child actress Dakota Fanning serves as the narrator and reads excerpts from the story. In a bold move, a team of animators gives life to characters and scenery in Darger’s illustrations. It’s sure to anger a few purists, but the artist himself portrayed several chronological events in sequence on one stretch of paper, so the decision seems justified.
This project was a risky undertaking for Yu and producer Susan West. Darger’s illustrations feature alternately playful and violently graphic imagery, scenes of children frolicking in lush Eden-like landscapes as well as gruesome acts of strangulation and disembowelment. Many debates have addressed the artist’s mental health, a question that couldn’t be avoided in the film. But Yu deliberately eschews the counsel of scholars, notably John M. MacGregor, a pioneer in the outsider art field, who spent years researching Darger but never actually knew him. Instead, Yu interviews the small handful of people in the community — neighbors and fellow churchgoers — who encountered the reclusive artist. She proves, with viewpoints so contrasting it’s comical, that nobody ever really knew him. Readings from the artist’s diary illuminate his imaginative and intelligent inner world that was often heartbreaking.
The details of Darger’s sad and lonely life are mostly buried; he grew up in an orphanage and the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, and few photos of him exist. But the director’s strength as a documentarian and an artist provides a necessary bridge. Yu incorporates found film footage, photography and sound design with themes that excited Darger — Civil War history, the city of Chicago and the weather.
Darger is one of the rare artists of this lifetime who’ll unquestionably become known as a master on par with Van Gogh and Picasso. Arguments between outsider vs. mainstream separatists abound (both groups want him in their canons) and trendy contemporary artists are appropriating his style left and right. The American Folk Art Museum in New York has Darger’s manuscript, but nobody has come up with the time, nerve or funding to read it in its entirety. It’s always stunning, nearly immobilizing, when such masterpieces appear on the scene, because they push the boundaries of art history in order to expand them. For this alone, this film will be remembered as one of the first works on Darger, in any medium, to present that case.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 21. Call 313-833-3237.
Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected].