In the Realms of the Unreal

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:51

    WEDS.-TUES., DEC. 22-JAN. 4

    SHORTLY AFTER HENRY DARGER'S death in 1973, his landlord discovered a body of work that puts even the most prolific artists to shame: several hundred watercolors, some stretching 15 feet wide-many double-sided-and the 15,000-page 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. In Darger's epic, the godless Glandelinians wage war against the Christian Angelinians. Only the seven Vivian Girls, preadolescent crusaders against child slavery, offer salvation.

    It's all very wonderful and bizarre, even before you notice that the young Vivian Girls have penises.

    In 1864, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso was among the first to use the art of mental deviants to aid their diagnoses. In 1921, the German psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler argued that Adolf Wölfli-a Swiss whose own autobiography weighed in at 25,000 pages, 1600 illustrations and almost as many collages-should be considered a serious artist, despite being a violent, child-molesting psychopath. In the 1940s, the French painter Jean Dubuffet put a name on this art: Art brut, or Raw Art.

    Today, Art Brut is popularly known as Outsider Art, thanks to Roger Cardinal's 1972 book of the same name, and put broadly, its participants are characterized in three ways: insane, generally schizophrenic; prompted by spirits or the divine; or exhibiting a childlike intensity and naiveté. Darger, one of the Outsider Art world's most famous figures, falls within all three, as Jessica Yu's new documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal, shows.

    When he was just eight years old, Henry Darger was sent to an orphanage by his widowed father. Though an avid reader, Henry was considered imbecilic and deemed a troublemaker, and was moved to an institution for boys that resembled a prison camp. He finally ran away at 16 to Chicago, where he found work as a janitor at a Catholic hospital, a job he would hold, at one hospital or another, for the next 60-odd years.

    Outsider artwork is often heralded more for its provenance than merit; the more insane or childlike or disconnected the artist, the better. It's a tough trick then, for a movie to make soup from what little meat survives on Henry Darger's bones. Just three photos of the man exist; even the pronunciation of his surname is up for debate.

    But Jessica Yu does a wonderful job. She presents interviews with the few who knew Darger, alongside readings of and animation based on the Vivian Girls saga. The result is a loose, affectionate swaddling of the man who believed little girls with penises were the only hope for saving an ever more godless world.

    Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.), 212-727-8110; call for times, $10.