Artists Working in Obscurity

After viewing two film documentaries, I am moved to reflect upon how an artist working in obscurity can produce a body of work both prodigious and original. Henry Darger  is the subject of one film, and Vivian Maier is the subject of the other.  Both artists lived in Chicago. Neither pursued fame and fortune during their lifetimes. Their work was not made public until after their deaths.

The 2004 documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal” tells the story of Henry Darger (1892-1973), a bachelor who lived in a rented room, worked as janitor in a hospital, wrote a 15-volume fantasy novel entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known a the Realms of the Glandeco-Angelian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, and illustrated this book with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings, some of mixed media with collage elements. His work, which his landlords recovered after his death, are housed in the American Folk Museum in New York City. His landlords knew nothing of the extraordinary artistic production that was taking place under their roof nor did anyone else. Darger probably started his book about 1909, writing it all by hand and then typing the entire manuscript over the course of decades. He followed the fantasy novel with another novel of 10,000 handwritten pages called Crazy Horse: Further Adventures in Chicago and a 8-volume The History of My Life.  People who knew Darger claim that he was strange and reclusive, but that he was not insane.

The second documentary,  Finding Vivian Maier, chronicles the equally intriguing life of a spinster who worked as a nanny for affluent families in Chicago’s North Shore communities. She lived in rented rooms where she stockpiled hundreds of photos and boxes of undeveloped rolls of film. She walked the city streets with a camera around her neck, snapping extraordinary photos of the rich and the poor. Although born in New York City in 1926 of a French mother and Austrian father, she spent much of her childhood in a small village in the French Alps.  Later in life Vivian Maier manifested a hoarding instinct, collecting newspaper clippings into binders and accumulating stacks of newspapers. Vivian Maier was loquacious and interested in current events. On cassette tapes she recorded interviews with her subjects. She had a lively interest in the world, and in 1959 she took a trip alone around the world, taking many pictures along the way. When she was old and destitute, two men she had cared for as boys rescued her and set her up in a Rogers Park apartment on Chicago’s north side. She died in a nursing home in 2009. The maker of the film, John Maloof, bought boxes of her photos and undeveloped film when the storage facility sold at auction the contents of her locker space because she had not paid her rent.

Both of these artists were eccentrics. Although their personalities seem to contain elements of abnormal psychology, they still managed to function in the world, holding the same job for decades until age and ill health prevented them from continuing. While they were employed, they also managed to pursue their artistic passions, unconcerned whether their art would ever make them famous. They did not feel the necessity to circulate among other artists or to formally educate themselves in their art. They were self-taught. By virtue of their isolation from a community of artists, they created a unique body of work. In this sense, can their art be said to be free of influences?  I think so–as possible as it is to be uninfluenced by what other artists are doing. When I think of the place of fantasy writing as a genre in the twentieth century and how popular Tolkien has become, I am astounded that simple, humble Henry Darger  had already started to write his monumental unreal realm probably before anyone else conceived of a fantasy series.

Writing in obscurity can do this. It can set the artist free. By narrowing the scope of their lives, Henry Darger and Vivian Maier focused every ounce of energy into creativity. Freedom from the demands of marriage, family, and social commitments permitted production of a huge, original body of work. Obscurity liberated these two artists to range widely in a weirdly wild and wonderful imaginative universe.

Vivian Maier and Henry Darger are the exceptions and not the rule. Most of us artists naturally want our work to be seen and read. We want to share the products of our imagination. Even Emily Dickinson sought publication. Eventually she abandoned the effort–but not entirely so, for she bound her poems in booklets stored away in a chest, surely hoping someone, some day, would discover them. Likewise, Henry Darger’s writings and drawings and Vivian Maier’s photography were rescued from obscurity and brought to light.

Their stories embody every artist’s implicit dream of posthumous glory.

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One response to this post.

  1. “unconcerned whether their art would ever make them famous” .. takes a lot of self-conviction. I read you into this essay, your doggedness, your eccentricity, your isolation. These are compliments. I admire you.

    Reply

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