Sometimes, there’s nothing more exciting than a secret. In the case of these secret collections — art, writings, and entire worlds — the inner obsessions of their creators and keepers have proven to be strangely beautiful and endlessly fascinating. We explored the works and private lives of secret artmakers and collectors, unearthing an otherness and uniqueness that we can’t seem to get enough of.
Vivian Maier’s street photography
This weekend, the documentary Finding Vivian Maier introduced audiences to the nanny who found posthumous fame after a local historian discovered her photographs that documented the people and streets of Chicago during the 1950s and ‘60s. Over 100,000 negatives were found, many undeveloped, and the secret life of the quietly progressive Maier was unraveled. Maier kept hundreds of boxes filled with materials, some of which included newspaper clippings and audiotaped conversations with the people she photographed. She was described by the children she cared for as “a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person” — the same children who bought her an apartment near the end of her life when she became homeless and struggled to make ends meet. The documentary delves deeper into her mysterious life and the discovery of her artworks.
The VHS collection of Marion Stokes
Late social justice advocate and Philadelphia librarian Marion Stokes spent the better part of her life recording television news and local public access programs 24-hours a day. Her collection numbers more than 800,000 uninterrupted hours of footage, documented on more than 140,000 VHS and Betamax tapes. Stokes would fire up as many as eight VCRs at one time, swapping tapes every six hours (often waking up in the middle of the night to change them). Her son Michael Metelits said Stokes had a “deep, deep conviction that this stuff was going to be useful. That somehow, someone would find a way to index it, archive it, store it.” Sure enough, the folks at the Internet Archive have been slowly converting Stokes’ massive collection into a digital, searchable archive available to the public. You can start exploring the beginnings of it over here.
James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly
James Hampton, a reclusive night janitor for the General Services Administration in Washington, rented a secret garage where he toiled away over a 14-year period building a massive throne. His creation was made from materials scavenged on the job, odds and ends from secondhand stores, and things found on the street. The tiered throne (cobbled together with 180 objects) was wrapped in metallic foil and pinned together with glue, tacks, pins, and tape. He considered it his life’s work and intended to open a storefront ministry once completed. The words “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” were written everywhere along with various biblical inscriptions. Hampton also kept a 108-page loose-leaf notebook he called St James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation, recorded in a mysterious script. Hampton’s masterpiece wasn’t discovered until his death in 1964.
Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion
There are ongoing discussions about the gross capitalization and exploitation of outsider artists by the art market — something that is often discussed whenever Henry Darger’s name arises. The reclusive Chicago custodian, who remains the most celebrated figure in outsider art, found posthumous fame when his 15,145-page manuscript, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, was discovered along with hundreds of unusual drawings and paintings. Darger’s works depicted an entire world, right down to a brutal, fictive war and armies of naked transgender children (all girls). Darger’s landlord discovered his fascinating collection just before the artist’s death in 1973, bringing his works to the public eye.
Hitler’s hidden art collection
The secret sexual life of Hitler has been a hot topic of debate, with speculation about the Führer’s penchant for golden showers, his impotence, and doubts about his heterosexuality being a few of the matters long argued over. We’ll leave all that to the historians and instead look upon Hitler’s secret art collection, estimated to be worth $2.7 million. The 16 paintings were recently discovered in a Czech convent. It’s believed they were brought to Germany during World War II, but then moved to Czechoslovakia to prevent their destruction. Of course, Hitler, a former artist and known art lover, collected a number of works by European painters — many that were seized by the Nazis. There was a time when he was planning a museum for his collection (numbering around 5,000 pieces) in Linz, Austria.
Joseph Boshier’s sculptures
Joseph Boshier was a successful architect whose career crumbled when one of his creations, the 10-story Chesney Court (considered a breakthrough in architectural design), collapsed leaving several dead and many injured. Boshier suffered a nervous breakdown and became a recluse, leaving the world of architecture behind him — or so many believed. When he died in 1982, it was discovered that Boshier had been creating an impressive body of work in his apartment that echoed the disaster he suffered through years earlier. Towering wooden sculptures (many built from the floorboards and furniture of his home), drawings, and writings revealed a decades-long obsession. Boshier even built an L-shaped structure that resembled the Chesney, which hid a number of personal artifacts and ephemera like a large-scale Wunderkammer. A documentary has been made about the artist’s life and work, featuring home movies and personal anecdotes by Boshier’s daughter, Constance Ripley.
Dr. Seuss’ “midnight paintings”
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, illustrated dozens of children’s books, but he also made whimsical artworks in private that remained secret for most of his 70-year career. He called his experimental abstract and surrealist pieces his “midnight paintings.” See more secret Seuss paintings, here.
Wallis Simpson’s secret letters to her ex-husband
Wallis Simpson’s opposed romance with Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor found the royal leaving the throne to marry the two-time divorcée. The abdication was scandalous enough, but a recently discovered series of secret letters written by Simpson around the time of the controversy reveals a profound love for another man (one of the husbands she divorced) and suggests she felt trapped into marrying Edward. See letters from the unearthed collection, here.