40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2002
I just finished a first trek through this remarkable book. What especially strikes me is the way John MacGregor's writing captures the process of thinking through the enigma of Henry Darger's life and work. Reading the book is like watching a great detective at work--MacGregor writes not as though he's already come to conclusions but as though he's coming to them in the act of writing. And he manages to do so while organizing everything in a number of ways--around Darger's life history, his artistic and technical development, and the increasingly violence depcited in his work. Throughout the book MacGregor makes Henry Darger real--as a deeply damaged child and adult, as a tormented believer in God, as a person of enormous inner resources, and as a creative genius. His ways of accounting for Darger's peculiar obsessions (suffocstion, evisceration, male genitals on girls) are pwerfully persuasive, and draw upon considerable research into the circumstances of Darger's childhood and the nightmarish conditions at the "asylum" in Illinois where Darger spent much of his youuth.
I've read MacGregor's earlier book in French, Michael Bonesteel's book, and the American Folk Art Museum book, but this book taught me more about Darger than I could've imagined. If you're new to Darger, it's the book to begin with. If you're already familiar with Darger's work, this is the book you've been waiting for.
32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2006
Henry Darger was a lonely old man who lived by himself in a small room in Chicago. He worked as a janitor all his life and went to church several times every day, but he never talked to anyone, so no one even knew how to pronounce his last name. When he died, his landlord went to clean out his room. There he discovered Darger's secret life work - around 300 paintings, and 30,000 pages of writing, including a 15,000-page long novel called "In The Realms Of The Unreal."
It takes a brave man to spend ten years to research such an obscure figure. Apparently John MacGregor was the only man up to the task. This book is the only comprehensive analysis of Darger's life and art in existence.
There's a lot to analyze. Darger's novel describes a horrifically violent world war, fought in an unreal world by the virtuous Catholic nation of Angelinia and the evil atheist nation of Glandelinia. Darger's real life was monotonous and isolated, but his inner life was a war, described every night for sixty-odd years with fanatical devotion. Most of his art depicts destruction. And his main symbol of Christian virtue is seven angelic little girls, whom he loves with suspicious passion. It is unnerving, to say the least.
MacGregor attempts to simultaneously describe Darger's life, critically appraise his art, understand his theology, and explore his psychology, while presenting numerous samples of Darger's work. This is the only such attempt ever made, so this book gets a good review almost by default. But I want to point out a few things about Darger's art and MacGregor's treatment of it.
MacGregor uses many superlatives to describe Darger, like "amazing," "astonishing," "brilliant," and "genius." But when he attempts to discuss Darger's writing in detail, the resulting impression is exactly the opposite. He calls Darger's writing "autistic," states (accurately, judging from the samples) that Darger was incapable of creating convincing dialogue and characters, and points out the incoherence of Darger's invented geography. Then sometimes he calls it "brilliant" in the same breath, and argues that Darger's novel is still very readable and interesting.
If it is, MacGregor's chosen samples don't do a lot to show it. Sometimes Darger could describe a sharp image, or affect the tone of an epic poet or a Bible prophet. But it's impossible to know if this is really a sign of creativity, or just a random aberration. In 15,000 pages, one can find evidence to support any interpretation.
Even when Darger writes something relatively good, one never knows if he really wrote it, or if he copied it from somewhere. MacGregor shows that Darger frequently borrowed whole passages from other works, like Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress." To MacGregor, this is a sign of brilliance. Maybe it is brilliant, for an autistic outsider. But I don't want to patronize Darger in that way, I want to try to approach his art as art first. Unfortunately, such an approach does invite the conclusion that the Realms are basically unreadable.
Maybe this is MacGregor's fault. He states, for example, that Darger could occasionally depict more complicated characters, like the honourable enemy general Izner Myletze. If this is true, it speaks in favour of Darger's writing, and is worth discussing. Unfortunately, MacGregor cites only one excerpt from the novel to prove it, and never returns to this issue again.
MacGregor suggests that one day, the novel might be published in abridged form, and appreciated by the general public. This seems impossible. There's no way to know what to abridge. The Realms have a dramatic situation, but no plot development. MacGregor himself says that the war remains unresolved until the last page of the novel.
The paintings stand up much better. Darger wasn't good at free-hand drawing, so he invented a kind of collage technique, carefully explained by MacGregor, in which he would trace stock human figures from books and magazines, and insert them onto his landscapes as he saw fit. He then coloured them in accordance with his setting, adding military uniforms and weapons. The landscapes themselves were of his own creation.
This technique is more impressive than it sounds. As in the novel, nature plays an active role in the paintings. The human figures are often caught under wild, threatening skies. The clouds come in all kinds of shapes, always gigantic, overwhelming the people. Darger's sense of scale makes nature into a colossal force.
Even the human figures, plundered from disposable popular sources, are turned entirely to Darger's purpose. Sometimes he can use them to create a feeling of motion, like in the one scene where the Vivian girls are running down a railroad track, pursued by enemy forces. And sometimes he comes up with a striking visual image, like the one on the cover of this book, or the one of the heart of Christ in heaven.
Then, of course, there are the violent paintings. There are only about ten of these, but the violence is completely unhinged. The most frightening painting of this sort depicts a massacre in a snowfield, where nature is deathly silent. This is the most distasteful aspect of Darger's art. Though maybe we shouldn't be too quick to call him crazy - isn't Mel Gibson making millions out of basically the same thing?
MacGregor argues that Darger was a great artist in his own right, but after reading this book, one feels that Darger can never be recognized. And this is depressing. It makes one think that art is useless. Darger's life-long commitment to his art basically destroyed his life, even as it motivated it. He was a very unhappy man. And although this book makes a powerful impression, when it's over, one is somewhat glad to get outside into the sunshine.
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2002
Darger's voluminous work, of which the drawings are only the tip of the iceberg, are inaccessable, literally, except for fragments published in a previous collection. Even if the full opus was available it would still be a alien monument due to it's sheer size, attracting only the peculiarly curious and those who have aquired the taste for Darger's vision. This said, MacGregor's work is a valuable description by a voyager to a dark continent who is capable of expressing the awe, fear and wonder that he experienced when immersed in this strange land. The book is lush, in design and writing, and each chapter tackles a different aspect of the Darger mystery. I imagine attempting to read all of Darger would cause the odd combination of shock and boredom that de Sade's work elicits, trangressive scenes compulsively written ad nausiam. MacGregor distills the major themes of Henry's work, avoids the mind-numbing repetition, yet preserves the vertigo of scale that Darger achieved, intentionally or otherwise. An odd masterpeice written about an even odder masterpeice.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2006
As fans of The Simpsons should know, "Outsider Art" is art that is made by a hillbilly, a mental patient, or a chimpanzee. Anyone who is interested in art like this should know about the great Henry Darger. His story is fascinating, heartbreaking, and deeply deeply disturbing, on all levels. The image on the cover of this book is one of the best examples of what Henry Darger is all about. Huge disembodied flame-colored hands hover menacingly over a group of little yellow-haired girls cowering in their beds. One is running away screaming. Another peers up in cool curiousity... Darger's cult of fame is based on the mega-voluminous epic he wrote throughout his solitary life, based on the often incredibly violent adventures of his imaginary "heart's darlings", The Vivian Girls. Choking and disemboweling were particular obsessions with Darger, and the "battle scenes" can be very hard to look at. Really, keep this book AWAY FROM KIDS, or they might be scarred for life. I admit I found myself seriously creeped out whilst reading this book alone late one night. But that's Darger! And you'll find just as many images of fanciful , wild, and utter beauty. His use of color is truly skillful, for someone so -- "unskilled." Unable to draw, he used a variety of creative techniques to achieve the results he wanted, such as collage, tracing, and color washes. The story of Darger is amazing, and this book gives him the detailed and in-depth treatment he deserves.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2003
For anyone looking to enter the unreal realms of Henry Darger, his writings and his artwork, MacGregor's book is essential. He has both exhaustively researched and reconstructed Darger's life as an isolated, perhaps mentally disturbed individual working as a dishwasher and janitor in Chicago and delved deeply into the often gruesome content of Darger's fantasy realm. The book itself is a wonder - it is like a great independent film, unflinching, provocative, well-constructed.
5 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2014
So many have profited from someone who had absolutely no awareness of any of this. He never had the opportunity to witness any of his "art" going public it was taken by his landlords of all people to do with what they wish without any real consent from Henry Darger, or awareness. He never got anything out of this industry that crept up in his name. Thoroughly, thoughtlessly and shamelessly exploited by people who really have limited feeling and no clue. A real disgrace to humanity that people would do this to someone who has suffered so much hardship and pain in life.
I give Henry Darger infinite stars being able to free himself as much as he could and the courage to do what he could with his difficult circumstances. As for the landlords and everyone else who shamelessly profited off his sufferings, I would give ZERO stars if I could.
It both outrages and disgusts me to know people are so interested in only their own profit at the expense of anything else that they would put someone's personal belongings and put them on such public display without the knowledge of the person who created them.
And you can bet the ones who are profiting off all this haven't got the guts or desire to put all their personal junk on the table for all to see, every little detail for the entire world to consider, mull over and judge. Would you like every aspect of your life exposed without your knowledge or consent and not get anything out of the deal? Think about that.
Shame on each and every one of you for mercilessly exploiting a soul who hurt so much in life!
You put him back in Lincoln Home for Feeble Minded all over again!