The Janitor, the Nanny and their Secret Artworks that Fetch a Lifetime’s Salary…Post Mortem [+ VIDEO]

| May 31, 2013

In 1973 a reclusive janitor named Henry Darger died in a Catholic mission in Chicago. On the day after his eighty-first birthday, his landlords discovered his body, and among the detritus they found Darger’s previously unseen works of art. In addition to a 15,000-page manuscript, they found enormous — and extensive —cartooned epics depicting otherworldly child battles. Darger called his series “the Vivian Girls.”

Ironically, another Chicagoan, who happened to be named Vivian, would shake up the art world decades on, only this Vivian was real — a quiet nanny with a secret: she was a brilliant photographer.

Thirty-four years after Darger’s artwork was revealed to the world, Vivian Maier’s photographs would see the light of day. But this time it was different, unlike Darger whose dark world was surrounded by his creations — Maier may not have even seen most of her own masterworks.

When John Maloof purchased, on a whim, a box of over 30,000 unattributed negatives in 2007 he had no idea he had just uncovered an artist’s oeuvre — images that critics would later column alongside Arbus, Weegee, Cartier-Bresson, and Penn.

In death, the impoverished Darger became an icon of both the Outsider Art world and tortured artists everywhere, with his works now fetching upwards of $80,000. And now Maier is having a similar posthumous rise in appreciation.

With countless gallery shows, exhibitions, a book and now a feature documentary, Maier’s photographs, which captured the highs and lows of street life, are now capturing people’s attention: And Maier’s work today has safely earned her a place in art history books the world over  — whether she’d have liked it or not.

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