Thursday, June 12, 2014

Darger and Maier

Watching Finding Vivian Maier (dir. John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, 2014), I thought again and again of Henry Darger. The similarities between these Chicago phantoms are unmistakable: years of low-paying work, secret lives of creativity in multiple media, a strong inclination to collect and hoard, a fascination with violence, and a devotion (both tender and cruel) to children. (It’s reasonable to speculate that both suffered abuse in childhood.) There are uncannier similarities too: Darger and Maier both claimed to have been born abroad (Darger in Brazil, Maier in France), and both have last names whose pronunciation is uncertain.

But the contrasts between Darger and Maier are just as unmistakable. Darger labored in the Realms of the Unreal (to borrow from the title of his master narrative) and lived in near isolation. Maier documented urban dailiness and lived in relation to her employers and her charges. She seems to have been at home anywhere, traveling the world, even interviewing strangers in the supermarket (tape recorder running) to get their opinions on current events. I can imagine Maier walking up to Darger, microphone in her hand, and Darger shuffling away and muttering.

What Darger and Maier ultimately have in common is a dedication to their work for its own sake. I like what the photographer Joel Meyerowitz says about Maier in the Maloof-Siskel documentary: “She didn’t defend herself as an artist. She just did the work.” So too with Darger. These artists are fortunate, I think, that their work became known only after their deaths, when public attention could not violate their privacy, when no one could ask anything more of them. Their stories make me wonder how many other secret artists might be at work in our cities.

[Multiple media: Darger: visual art, narrative fiction, autobiography. Maier: photography, home movies, tape recordings. Darger’s name is said to be pronounced with a soft g, though I can no longer recall who says so or what the evidence is. Finding Vivian Maier settles on a long i : my - er .]

comments: 0