“Darger’s external life was so small, so unobtrusive (did he fear being sent back to the institution?) that it gave no clue as to the enormity of his inner/other life.”—A. M. Homes, “Inside Out: The Art of Henry Darger,” Artforum, May 1997
My introduction to the work of the self-taught artist Henry Darger, who was born in 1892, came from an article by A. M. Homes in the May 1997 issue of Art Forum. What had initially galvanized my interest in unusual or even extreme artistic visions outside of the mainstream was seeing an exhibition, in 1989, of work done by Adolf Wolfli (1864 -1930). Wolfli was severely emotionally disturbed and he spent most of his adult life institutionalized in Switzerland and often kept in isolation, yet he was given the tools and the encouragement by his doctor to express himself on paper, which he did with an hallucinatory zeal.
Wölfli’s art, like Darger’s, continues to astonish for its unbounded energy and its direct connection to the inner plateaus of meaning attached to individuals who live outside the laws of polite society. Darger’s story is not one of extreme derangement like Wölfli’s, yet the same word, “hallucinatory,” could be used to describe his staggering body of work created out of a self-imposed isolation on his long road from precocious child—his father said he began to talk at age one and he began to read at age four—to peculiar little boy, a word his father used to describe him. Darger’s mother died when he was four after giving birth to a sister who was quickly put up for adoption, and then at the age of eight Darger was put into a Catholic orphanage for boys when his father could no longer take care of him. So as Darger’s imaginary life was beginning to take shape, influenced by the fantasy books he avidly read, part of his world was abruptly shut down with the disappearance of his mother and a tiny sibling, only to have this early shattering expanded when he was separated from his father and put in a home—his circle of abandonment complete and irrevocable. At the age of seventeen, Darger ran away from the orphanage and settled in Chicago where he remained until the end of his life, supporting himself well into his seventies with jobs such as janitor, dishwasher, and bandage maker, until he was forced to retire due to physical ailments.
In the early days of Darger-mania which set in when his work was slowly revealed to the public after the artist died, in 1973, there was a certain amount of misleading information that was also disseminated about him—that he was “feebleminded,” that he was also insane, and that he lived as a total recluse, locked away in his “realms of the unreal.” Feebleminded he definitely wasn’t. And although as a child he was traumatized by death and loss, coupled with the severity of the Catholic nuns who raised him, Darger’s early interest in fantasy—for example, he owned and had read all of
the Oz books—would set in motion an obsessive and decades-long construction of an inner universe of words and images so complex and bizarre that there is no other body of work in the history of art to compare it with.
It has been said by some art historians and aficionados that Darger is not only one of the most influential outsider artists, but one of the most important contemporary artists as well. Michael Bonesteel, in the introduction to his survey of the artist’s work, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, published in 2000, wrote, “Perhaps it is not so much a matter of whether or not Darger belongs in the Outsider art category, but more a matter of whether that category can truly contain him.” Bonesteel’s book was one of the first comprehensive efforts to attempt an in-depth critical assessment of Darger’s strange biography and his often violent and perverse monumental saga depicting the Vivian Girls and their involvement in a bloody series of battles with very wicked individuals—both adults and children. Bonesteel is also a contributor to the recently reprinted and lavishly illustrated art book, Henry Darger, edited by Klaus Biesenbach, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with other contributions by Brooke Davis Anderson and Carl Watkins.
The full title of Darger’s magnum opus—it comprises a fifteen-thousand page novel and many hundreds of fantastic collages, some of them eleven feet wide—is this tongue twister: 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 is nothing that anyone could write that would prepare the viewer or the reader for Darger’s mind-bendingly mythic tale of murder, mayhem, torture, and hell on earth, where little girls with penises are captured, evade capture, apprehend grownup male soldiers, are slaughtered, and engage in slaughter in return. There are pages and pages of battles, ambushes, enslavements, periods of rest and recreation, and divine interventions by colorful flying creatures like the Gigantic Gazonian Type of Poisonous Tuskhoriean. Reclusive though Darger was, he did have one close friend and he was out and about on the streets of Chicago collecting things and words and images with a vengeance. He copied, traced, and photo-enlarged his source material from comic books, comic strips, newspapers, monthly magazines, and coloring books, always altering the mostly bland facial expressions of children and adults to suit his restless imagination that usually edged toward chaos and tempestuous situations. The sometimes small but mostly huge collages that Darger created with these found and altered images were embellished with his own watercolor landscapes and fantasy backdrops.
What seemed to be the event that triggered Darger’s nosedive into his intense inner life, subsequently bringing it into the light of day, was the disappearance of a photograph he had clipped out of the Chicago Daily News on May 9, 1911. It was a photograph of a five-year-old murder victim,
Elsie Paroubek, and when Darger realized the image had disappeared, it set in motion an inner turmoil from which arose the fictional character of Annie Aronburg, heroine of the great Glandeco-Angelinian War. But before Darger turned his loss into art, he begged God to return the photograph — he pleaded, threatened, and cursed his way to the other side of his already fixated mind. In Bonesteel’s view, “Darger actually may not have decided to use the Paroubek photo as the model for Annie Aronburg until after it was lost and the artistic and psychological value of the photo may have resided precisely in the fact of its having disappeared. It is conceivable that Darger deliberately used the loss in a creative and positive fashion by channeling this personal crisis into his art.” What the madeleine was to Marcel Proust, the missing photograph was to Henry Darger, the catalyst for a body of artwork like no other before or since. Yes, little Elsie’s image was definitely Darger’s madeleine, but it was also the chronic thorn in his conflicted Christian flesh.
The Vivian Girls written fantasy was begun in 1912 and the collages began around 1920. And if the reading of the novel is beyond most people’s patience, the collages are nothing short of amazing. Darger was gifted at the appropriation of his source materials and no matter how one might translate some of his subconscious urges, he was utterly masterful in his use of space, color, texture, and the various tableaux of bodies and gestures and facial expressions of every description—from angelic repose to horrific near-death experiences to death by strangulation and worse. Darger’s sense of control over every mood, pattern, emotional display, weather pattern, and contextual landscape defies comprehension given the narrow outer circumference of his life. While he was alive, no one knew about these thousands of pages of a parallel universe, or his five-thousand-page autobiography, or his second monumental work of fiction, or his weather journal, which had a tornado named Sweetie Pie as a main protagonist. No one knew. Only sometimes, late at night, he could be heard talking to himself in many different voices so people always thought he had visitors in his room, but that was never the case.
Whatever the nature of Darger’s pathology—some psychologists have suggested he was on the autistic spectrum with an obsessive-compulsive disorder—the artist projected his convoluted fantasies onto a continually unfolding screen that renders his work nothing if not cinematic and resonant with deeply rooted traumas, perverse wish fulfillments, and the constant need to transmute his internal sea of struggles into a tapestry of survival against all odds. This tormented man found his own exultation in his protean imagination that took him beyond his physical pains and conflicted ense of self. However you want to regard the immense and intricate strangeness of Darger’s “realms of the unreal,” in the last analysis his work was generated from his own private ocean of mysticism, filled with marvelous and complex revelations—some of them peculiar indeed, but all of them treated in a unique unwavering style, mirroring back to a seemingly indifferent world the artist’s rich but complicated interior life. The enormity of Darger’s inner space, the sheer breadth of his astounding vision, in the end only ill health prevented him from adding to it, dredging more images from his imagination, more configurations of battles won and lost by his Virgins Galactic—all actions in opposition to and in agreement with the topography of his inward being.This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead