"At Wickey Sansinia They fight their pursuers still nude", 19” x 37”,
courtesy The Centre for Intuitive and Outsider Art
Review/Interview by Greer Nicholson
We live in a time of obsession with celebrity. Every child wants to grow up to get their 15 minutes of fame, as promised by Andy Warhol. Reality TV rules the entertainment roost and the notion of the struggling artist may still be romantic, but it’s out of fashion. The story of Henry Darger, an “outsider” artist who kept his paintings private while he was alive, is told in ”Revolutions of the Night”. Henry lived a world away from the idea of celebrity, although he has achieved enormous international recognition since his work was discovered. Born in Chicago in 1892, he died unheralded in 1973. Tabloid writers would describe his life as “tragic”.
“Revolutions of the Night” is a magical film and offers a real treat for the viewer, whether you care about art or not. Seeing it made me jump for joy, leaving me both entertained and very thoughtful. It asks a lot of questions about what it means to be an artist, when there is no audience or support from others. This movie is what documentary film-making should be about. It glows with beauty and fizzes with provocative and fascinating ideas. It deals with Henry becoming an orphan, confined to a mental institution and settling for a menial job. But Henry has a big deal secret life. In the room he rented, he was making glorious and huge paintings. Many of these were about an imagined war between different kingdoms and the suffering of children. At the same time, he was writing a longer-than 15,000 page single-spaced novel. He spent a lot of his time creating, without anyone else ever seeing the results.
Throughout all his productive years, Henry also hoarded lots of stuff, including his paintings, writing and scrap books on various subjects, including the weather. Ironically, he rented a room from artist Nathan Lerner, yet he never shared his own creations with his landlord. After Henry died, Nathan and his wife Kiyoko started going through Henry’s stuff. Exhibitions followed, along with lots of praise from experts and extended commentaries on the super colours and the distinctive cartoonish characters. The nature of the physical suffering shown in the paintings has been seen as controversial. For Henry, the only benefit of all this attention was that he got a better gravestone.
I saw the film as part of the FIFA festival of films about art, in the broadest sense, in Montreal and I interviewed director Mark Stokes (MS). (No, this FIFA has nothing to do with association football).
Here is the interview:
G: Apart from the way you use light to let the paintings speak for themselves, some of the most difficult stuff in the film is the detail about the Lincoln, Illinois asylum.
MS: There was a very detailed investigation in 1908 and I read a vivid report which contained half a million words and interviews with more than a hundred people. Half the town worked there as it was a very big place. One section of the report describes a young girl being found tied to a bed and nobody knowing how long she might have been there.
G: The bed and the chair and the way in which they might have been used to punish people – that’s frightening detail, in the film.
MS: It’s called a Utica crib and people at Lincoln were kept enclosed in it. There are many stories.
G: What was your first reaction to the paintings?
MS: I thought they deserved to be understood more and that Henry Darger deserved to be seen as more than a caricature figure. So much that I read described the paintings as controversial, disturbing or unsettling and people will not automatically love them.
G: People thought that perhaps Henry had tortured others in the ways he depicted?
MS: I don’t believe that at all. Did he carry out any acts of torture? No. Was he aware of people at Lincoln being treated badly? Yes. There were people who believed that disabled people could not feel pain! That’s clearly wrong, but it’s there in the 1908 investigation.
G: It’s clear in the film that people saw Henry as an odd character who kept himself very private.
MS: Different aspects of his life come out of his diaries. You get a sense of what he was about from a lot of fragments about religious and apocalyptic ideas, especially. He used his Chicago Public Library card and was very interested in reading philosophy books.
G: It’s sad to think he was so alone.
MS: He wasn’t, really. He went to the same diner every day. He had a friend he spent some time with. He created so much but he did socialise.
G: Does his work beg questions about class?
MS: Definitely, because he was aware of his position in society. Also, he was an outsider, which is why people think of his work as difficult and fantastic. People blame him for not pursuing fame, but he had decided not to, because of his life experience. Less loud voices can have more impact, over time.
G: But as he worked, he must have been aware of TV and of the fame of others?
MS: He saw his own place in the world in his own way. On the hospital he then worked in, he commented privately that he had more brains than all the others combined. He withdrew from the world in terms of his creative life and he recreated his sense of himself. Quirks of fate stop him from having another life.
G: It’s almost impossible for us to understand such a life, obsessed with creation, but without wanting any public reaction. In a way, it’s purer art for not having a multitude of influences from people seeing the work.
MS: He’s a fascinating artist who has influenced many other artists. Henry Darger had an incredible life.
G: The music is beautiful and goes well with the story, without being intrusive.
MS: Wayne Balmer wrote the score.
movie website: www.dargerfilm.com
This film really deserves to be distributed and shown widely as it offers a sympathetic vision of a truly innovative artist. If you get to see it, you will have a rare treat.
The Art Newspaper
published March 27th, 2012