Self-Taught & Outsider Art

Henry Darger: Life and Art

Lecture by Jane Kallir [Intuit Art Show, Chicago, April 2007]

Henry Darger is something of a local legend here in Chicago. Born here in 1892, he spent most of his life doing menial labor in hospitals. A taciturn man with almost no known friends, he lived in a rented room at 851 Webster Avenue. However, shortly before he died in 1973, his landlord Nathan Lerner discovered a mysterious trove of long, scroll-like watercolors in Darger’s cluttered room. Buried amidst old Pepto Bismol bottles, balls of twine and dozens of telephone books was one of the longest novels ever written (over 15,000 pages) and several hundred drawings loosely illustrating the tale told therein. The Darger legacy is, to this day, among the most important finds in the history of “outsider” art.


In fact, Darger, the slightly crazy recluse with the bizarre fantasy life, has sort of become the poster child for the whole outsider art movement. In the outsider field, biography often overshadows art, and though I can’t think of anyone in the field who disputes the greatness of Darger’s artistic achievement, there’s been an unfortunate tendency to view it in pathological, rather than art historical terms. In order to give a more balanced account of Darger’s achievement, I’m going to start by objectively summarizing his biography. In the second half of my talk, I’ll discuss Darger’s art, not as an extension of his biography, but on its own merits.


Darger did, to be sure, have a sad and difficult life. When he was four years old, his mother died giving birth to a baby girl. Darger’s widowed father immediately put the infant up for adoption; the dual loss of his mother and sister would haunt Henry for the rest of his life. But little Henry was a handful himself: belligerent, even violent, toward his peers and teachers, and something of a pyromaniac. Darger’s father, who was already fifty-two when Henry was born, couldn’t cope with his son’s outbursts. Plagued as well by ill health, he eventually consigned Henry to a Catholic refuge for homeless boys, the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy. Henry was between six and eight years old at the time. (We don’t know the exact date.)


Henry continued to pose disciplinary problems at the Mission and in school. His classmates taunted him and called him “crazy”; a doctor who examined him told him that his “heart was not in the right place,” a metaphor that confused the child enormously. At the time, little distinction was made between emotional problems and learning difficulties. Henry was extremely intelligent, but in 1904, at the age of 12, he was sent to the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. Henry’s move to Lincoln, Illinois, some 160 miles south of Chicago, placed a permanent physical barrier between him and his father, who had been forced to move to the St. Augustine Home for the Aged. Henry never saw his father, who died in 1908, again.


Darger’s autobiography, a handwritten manuscript produced toward the end of is life, recalls the Lincoln Asylum as a pleasant place: the closest he ever came to heaven. In caring for all his physical needs, the asylum provided a welcome sense of structure and a security that Henry hadn’t known before and would never again enjoy. And Henry, an experienced street fighter and one of the more intelligent boys in the institution, could easily hold his own among his fellow inmates. He even seems to have made a few friends.


Yet the Lincoln Asylum was certainly not a hospitable or nurturing environment. No attempt was made to teach the boys anything but the rudimentary manual skills deemed appropriate for those of limited intelligence, and consequently Henry’s educational and social development stalled at an elementary school level. Never did Henry encounter the warmth or personal attention a child needs and rightly expects from parents and teachers. On the contrary, the adults who ran the Lincoln Asylum were crude incompetents whose indifference, neglect and outright cruelty toward their young charges triggered an official government investigation in 1908.


That same year—which was also the year that Darger’s father died—Henry made his first attempt to run away from the Lincoln Asylum. It was customary for the more able inmates to be sent, during the summer, to work at a state-owned farm. The relative freedom of the farm provided Henry with the opportunity to escape, and he got as far as Chicago by hitching a ride on a freight train, before being sent back to Lincoln by the police. Henry made a second, more successful, escape attempt the following summer, in 1909. At the age of 17, he returned to Chicago, which was to remain his home for the rest of his life.


In Chicago, Henry obtained work as a janitor at St. Joseph’s Hospital, which also provided housing for workers who needed it. Excepting for a brief stint in the army, Darger would live and work at St. Joseph’s for the next 13 years. (He was drafted in 1917 and honorably discharged a few months after completing basic training, ostensibly for medical reasons.) Darger’s reputation as a “crazy” person followed him to St. Joseph’s. It was known that he’d come from the Lincoln Asylum, and his somewhat unconventional manner inspired both taunting and fear. But for the most part, Darger seems to have been a docile, obedient employee who silently endured the sometimes harsh bullying of the nuns who ran the hospital. One nun, Sister de Paul, was so hard on him that finally he took another job.


In 1922, Darger went to work as a dishwasher at Grant Hospital. Since Grant didn’t provide housing, Henry lodged with the Anschutz family at 1035 Webster Avenue. His only documented social contacts date from this period. He exchanged Christmas presents with the Aschutzes, and spent his free time visiting his one real friend, a man named William Schloder. Schloder figures as a character in Darger’s massive novel, and it’s possible that he actively participated in the author’s fantasy life. Scholder is named as co-president of the Gemini Society for the Protection of Children, an organization invented by Darger that may or may not have existed in reality.


Darger’s vivid fantasies probably date back at least to his years at the Lincoln Asylum. Children in difficult situations often create alternate, imaginary universes to relieve their pain and boredom. Darger’s first known attempt to record in words the complex narrative that ran constantly through his head took place while he was rooming at St. Joseph’s Hospital. The disappearance of an early copy of the manuscript, along with a photograph of one of the novel's heroines, Annie Aronberg, are among Darger’s most upsetting experiences from that period. Ultimately he blamed—and could not forgive—God for these losses, which stood in for the far more serious losses he had suffered.


Most of Darger’s surviving manuscript—seven hardbound and eight unbound volumes—was probably written in the 1920s, when the author was boarding with the Anschutz family. The full title of the book is The Story of the V ivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal; of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. For brevity’s sake, the novel is usually referred to as In the Realms of the Unreal, or simply The Realms. The story revolves around a cataclysmic struggle between the good, Catholic nation of Abbiennia and evil, atheistic Glandelinia. It is the Glandelinians who have enslaved the children, whose rebellion in turn triggers the war. When Annie Aronburg, the leader of the child slaves, is murdered, the Vivian Girls take up the cause of freeing the children and defeating the Glandelinians. These seven beautiful and angelically good sisters are Abbiennian princesses. Their father, General Robert Vivian, is one of a cast of adults who are the architects of the war, but not necessarily its chief protagonists. Darger’s focus is on the impact of the war upon the children, and his heroines are the Vivian sisters.


On a superficial level, the sources of Darger’s magnum opus aren’t difficult to locate. Like many boys, he was a Civil War buff—hence the notion of a war to free the slaves. The idea of an “unreal” parallel universe derives in part from the Wizard of Oz and its thirteen sequels—all of which Henry owned. Eva, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Johanna Spiri’s Heidi are among the childhood literary figures who served as models for Darger’s saccharine-sweet girl heroines. Penrod, a character lifted from Booth Tarkington’s popular tales, is one of the few male children to play a significant role in the story. Real people from Darger’s life, such as Schloder and the author himself, also appear as characters. The content of the book vacillates eerily between the sort of light-hearted banter typical of children’s adventure tales and extensive descriptions of gruesome carnage. As the Darger scholar John MacGregor has pointed out, although The Realms is commonly called a novel, that is really a misnomer. The Realms has no plot structure to speak of; it’s simply a long sequence of loosely connected episodes. It is, more correctly, the history of an imaginary war.


The psychological underpinnings of In the Realms of the Unreal have been extensively explored by MacGregor in his book of the same title. Some of these psychological influences seem almost as obvious as Darger’s literary sources. It is, for example, easy to draw a connection between Darger's lost sister and his obsession with little girls. The missing mother is less often commented upon, but I’ve always found it interesting that there are almost no adult women in Darger's watercolors. Although we don’t know for sure that Henry was physically or sexually abused at the Lincoln Asylum, his concern with protecting and saving children from adult aggressors clearly derived from his own profound childhood traumas. However, in the evident enthusiasm with which Darger catalogued mayhem and acts of torture—detailed rants that sometimes extend, uninterrupted, for hundreds of pages—we sense that, like many abused children, he had the potential to become an abusive adult. John MacGregor has drawn a lot of criticism for suggesting that Darger had the mind of a serial killer, although MacGregor readily concedes that the artist probably never acted upon these impulses, having sublimated them in his writing and his art. Beyond a certain point, any attempt to psychoanalyze Henry Darger must be considered purely speculative. More important, psychoanalysis is absolutely irrelevant to an understanding of his art. I’ll get to the art in just a few minutes, but first I’d like to conclude my summary of Darger’s life.


In 1928, Darger went back to work at St. Joseph’s Hospital, this time as a dishwasher. It’s not clear why, but the change of jobs doesn’t seem to have been particularly significant. More significant was his move, in 1932, from the Anschutz’s rooming house to similar lodgings at 851 Webster: to the room he was to occupy for the rest of his life. Although Darger had probably begun producing visual accompaniments to The Realms while residing at 1035 Webster, most of his artwork was created in his new residence. Beyond the invented world that gradually came to fill Darger’s rented room, the artist’s life revolved around his job and St. Vincent’s Church, where he attended Mass daily.


In 1947, his supervisors at St. Joseph’s, feeling he was no longer physically able to do the work, let him go. He next took a job at the Alexian Brothers Hospital. Here there was more sympathy for Darger’s increasing frailty: when he could no longer stand the heat of the dishwashing room, he was assigned to peal vegetables, and then finally to roll bandages.


As Darger aged, he was plagued by excruciating leg pains, which seem to have reignited his longstanding feud with God. The same God who had deprived him of the first manuscript of The Realms, and who had refused to return the lost photo of Annie Aronburg, was now visiting this new torture upon him. Alternately furious at God and guilty because he had blasphemed, Darger couldn’t understand why his piety hadn’t been rewarded, why his prayers were never answered.


Finally, in 1963, Darger’s leg pains grew so severe that he was forced to retire. Hereafter, he attended Mass four or more times a day. He also, despite the crippling pain in his legs, took long walks, on which he picked up bits of string and bottle caps. The string, which he tied together and rolled into balls, added to his mounting anger at God, whom he blamed when the string tangled. Often he could be heard engaging in violent arguments in his empty room—with God or with imaginary people, whose voices he could imitate with uncanny accuracy. He seldom spoke much to real people, however. He was considered strange but harmless by his neighbors: a sad old recluse with poor sanitary habits.


Retirement gave Darger more time to write. He had probably finished In the Realms of the Unreal by the early 1930s, and in 1939, he began a sequel, which he called Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House. But in the ensuing period, most of Darger’s creative energy went into his artwork. In the 1950s, he started two diaries: one recording his artistic progress, and a second recording the weather (something that had fascinated him since childhood). However, in 1968, following his retirement, he began keeping a more conventional diary of daily events: documenting, chiefly, his attendance at Mass and his “tantrums” with God: two activities that seemingly canceled one another out. Also in 1968, Darger began writing an autobiography, from which comes much of our information about his life. The autobiography would eventually comprise over 5,000 pages, the vast majority of them devoted to a horrific account of a violent tornado called “Sweetie Pie.”


Inevitably, the aging artist was overtaken by health problems. In 1969, he was hit by a car, and though he recovered after several months of bedrest, his mobility was hereafter greatly decreased. Finally unable to climb the two flights of stairs to his rented room, in November 1972 Darger allowed himself to be taken to the St. Augustine Home for the Aged—the same charitable institution in which his father had ended his days.


Darger’s last diary entry was written on New Year’s’ Day, 1971. “I had a very poor … Christmas,” he wrote. “Never had a good Christmas all my life, nor a good new year, and now … What will it be, New Year’s 1972? God only knows. This year was a very bad one. Hope not to repeat.” Darger died in April 1973 at the age of 81. When Nathan Lerner, who had bought the rooming house at 851 Webster in 1956, went to clean out his tenant’s room, he discovered In the Realms of the Unreal in all its glory: the manuscript, and the art.


The art was discovered when it was, in Darger’s own words, “too late.” Too late for the artist to reap any personal benefit from his work, too late for him ever to know how famous and beloved it, and he, would eventually become. He told Lerner that he could do what he wanted with the contents of the room; “throw it all away” was Darger’s suggestion. Fortunately for us, Lerner, himself a noted photographer and artist, didn’t heed his tenant’s instructions.


The story of how Henry Darger, owing to the dedication and foresight of Lerner and of other pioneers such as the dealer Phyllis Kind, came to be recognized as one of America’s most important “Outsider artists” is beyond the scope of our discussion here today. I intend to focus not on the “how,” but on the “why.”


Although “outsider art” is notoriously difficult to define, Henry Darger would have to be considered the closest thing to a textbook case that we have. He occupied a world unto himself, cut off from all meaningful contact with other human beings. And because this world was so narrowly circumscribed and unchanging, Darger’s entire oeuvre was preserved virtually intact in the room he occupied for the last 40 years of his life. It’s seldom that scholars are given the opportunity to study such a vast and complete body of work by an outsider artist.


I believe that we should study the work of outsider artists in exactly the same way that we study the work of trained artists. The main difference is that trained artists learn their craft in art school, whereas outsider artists have to teach themselves. So let’s start there.


I’ve already noted that Henry Darger was a packrat, and this applied not only to bottle caps and string, but to images as well. He collected news clippings that interested him, and cut out photographs and illustrations that evoked the characters in The Realms. Influenced by newspaper captions, he sometimes added explanatory texts to these images.


We don’t know when Darger began the gradual process of turning clippings into art, but it may have been as early as 1918. Certainly, by the time he was residing with the Anschutz’s in the 1920s, his walls were covered with pictures. The Vivian Girls were Darger’s surrogate sisters, and these were his family portraits.


In order to make his appropriated images conform more closely to his vision, Darger began to modify them with paint, and it wasn’t too long before he’d begun to cut up and collage clippings together to create more elaborate, customized compositions, and finally, to create entirely hand-drawn pictures.


In the mid to late 1920s, Darger attempted to create pictorial records of the battles he was simultaneously writing about in The Realms. But most of his early drawings were not so much illustrations for The Realms as accompaniments to it. During this period, he created extensive series of what I would term accessory images, documenting such things as regimental flags and uniforms. He created many portraits of the Vivian girls and other children, and portraits of his generals.


The most curious characters in The Realms are the so-called Blengins (short for Blengiglomenean serpents). Blengins are immense dragon-like creatures, native to the Blengiglomenean islands, that combine various animal and human body parts. Their wings, as Darger describes them, can be as high as thirteen hundred feet, and as thick as fourteen feet [!] Incredibly kind toward and protective of children, Blengins are vicious toward their enemies. Some are “venomous” –- with a deadly bite and poison in their wingtips, hands or feet. But alongside their venomous forked tongues, Blengins have in their mouths a hollow “lance,” which they use to inject children with a magical serum that makes them deliriously happy. John MacGregor, not surprisingly, draws a connection between these orgasmic Blengin injections and Darger’s own repressed and presumably traumatic experiences of sexuality.


Also during this early period—and I’d say we’re talking here about the late 1920s or the early ‘30s—Darger created a series of detailed maps outlining the geography of The Realms and the locations of the myriad battles. These maps tie in with the various written materials –- lists of characters, battles, deaths and a lengthy treatise on the different types of Blengins—that Darger prepared in order to catalogue his imaginary realm. He was, bit by bit, piece by piece, creating a world as full and as richly detailed as the real world, and far more interesting than his own narrowly circumscribed existence. It’s not difficult to understand why Darger would choose to spend the rest of his life in that unreal realm.


At some point around this time—and again, I’d say late 1920s, early ‘30s – Darger began to illustrate The Realms. Now, just as MacGregor cautions us against thinking of The Realms as a novel in the usual sense of the term, I would caution against referring to Darger’s artwork as illustrations in the conventional sense. No one has ever, to my knowledge, made a systematic attempt to correlate all of Darger’s art with the written manuscript, but even a cursory comparison suggests that there’s only a loose correlation between the two bodies of work. This isn’t altogether surprising, given that they were done at different times; Darger really only set out to “illustrate” The Realms when he had finished writing the “novel.” I somehow doubt that he referred back to the typed manuscript when he created his artworks. He didn’t need to, because the story existed in his head. But with the passage of time, the story in Darger’s head evolved, and I think that there’s a far closer connection between the early artworks and the manuscript than there is between the manuscript and Darger’s later visuals. Further research would be required, however, to bear this theory out.


Darger’s first narrative works (as opposed to the single-subject pictures he did earlier) were created on sheets measuring approximately 19 x 24 inches. He used the kind of cheap Manila paper you may remember being given in Kindergarten and elementary school, and cake watercolors also similar to those used by children. The small sheets that make up these works were probably pasted together some years after they were first created. There’s a tendency to want to read the images on Darger’s multi-sheet scrolls like panels in a comic strip, but this wasn’t necessarily the artist’s intention. Sometimes there’s little or no narrative connection among the panels. The smaller panels were, in my opinion, often pasted together simply so that Darger could have larger sheets on which to paint.


I should mention here that just about all Darger’s narrative works are double-sided. In the 1930s and early ‘40s, we don’t see a direct connection, either stylistically or in terms of content, between the rectos and the versos of Darger’s double-sided watercolors.There can be a gap of eight to ten years between the works on the two sides.


There are several stylistic characteristics that distinguish Darger’s earliest narrative works. Everything about them is smaller: the compositional format, and the individual figures. And we don’t see, in Darger’s earliest works, the nudity for which he is so widely known.


Darger gradually expanded his compositions to encompass two or more of the 19 x 24 sheets. Over the course of about a decade, he gradually taught himself to create larger and more complex compositions. By the 1940s, he’d literally expanded his horizons, both artistically and in terms of the works’ physical dimensions.


The progressive increase in the scale of Darger’s works was accompanied by a change in his approach to depicting the war. Exquisitely choreographed battle scenes, with horses and soldiers and children strewn across a broad panorama, are typical of the 1930s. In the 1940s, confrontations between the children and their tormentors are depicted in far more graphic close-up. The later watercolors are less majestic, and often more brutal. And as I’ve already mentioned, the children in Darger’s later works are often nude, for no logical reason.


I’ve said that I’m going to try to avoid, as much as possible, psychoanalyzing Darger, but I know that if I don’t bring it up, you’re all going to ask me later about the penises. Certainly one of the most idiosyncratic aspects of Darger's work is that many of his naked little girls have male anatomy. And here I think MacGregor’s psychoanalytic explanation has a great deal of merit. There is, in psychology, a concept referred to as "knowing and not knowing." Of course Darger knew that females don’t have penises. He’d surely seen pornographic magazines, even if he’d never had sex with a woman. But, arrested in his own psychological development, he’d never outgrown his boyhood castration anxiety, and the thought of human beings without the familiar male anatomy was simply too frightening to be consciously acknowledged. So, he gave his girl children penises.


By the 1940s, Darger had come a long way, artistically, from the simple doctored photographs and clippings with which he’d decorated his room in the 1920s. And yet, he still relied on printed source material for just about all the images in his work. The compositions and colors were original, but the figures, buildings, flora, fauna and even the clouds were traced, with carbon paper, from published sources: comics, advertisements, coloring books—a whole trove of printed ephemera amassed by the packrat artist.


Darger’s tracings of the source images were not, however, straight copies. Sometimes he combined body-parts from several different clippings. And he had to “nude” (that’s his term) figures that were originally clothed, since images of naked children don’t commonly appear in the mass media. One of the key tools that enabled Darger to work larger from the mid 1940s onward was the discovery that he could have photographic enlargements of his source material made at a local drugstore.


By the late 1950s, Darger was able to create elaborate works as large as 125 inches long. He had by this point accumulated a significant collection of figural templates, and his compositions are densely packed. He also, at this stage, painted both sides of the sheet at more or less the same time. Not only is there no longer any stylistic difference between recto and verso, but often there’s a direct connection between the content of the two sides.


Sometimes the recto and verso of a single work will present the same scene from two different points of view, or meld contiguous views in an imaginative panorama. Darger “pans” the scene, much as a filmmaker would. His view of time and space is extremely innovative, far transcending the more static approach of traditional Western art, which is oriented toward a single vantage point.


A few more general observations can be made about the narrative arc of the watercolors. Like the book, the watercolors don’t seem to have a continuous, consistent plot, but, again as in the book, there are, I think, discrete episodic sequences linking smaller groups of images. Many of the watercolors have numbered captions, and now that we know something about Darger’s stylistic development, it’s pretty clear that the works with low numbers were done before the works with higher numbers. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that sometimes, sequential numbers correlate with depictions of sequential events. The numerical sequence of the works is by no means definitive or consistent, but it does suggest fertile ground for further study.


Darger’s written and painted narratives each end with the defeat of the wicked Glandelinians, but the ending seems to be far more protracted and detailed in the artworks than it is in the book. As a prelude to war crimes trials, there are a number of scenes in which the little girls take their former foes prisoner. Most interesting is Darger’s depiction of Glandelinean propaganda—pictures and sculptures—which are also carted off by the Abbeininan child-warriors to be used as evidence at the trials. These Glandelinean propaganda images look an awful lot like Henry Darger’s earlier work: mainly, they depict male soldiers strangling little girls. It’s interesting that Darger was, in effect, condemning and disowning his own former fantasies. It’s not for me to say whether, psychologically speaking, this was a good or a bad thing: whether Darger had finally overcome and made peace with his aggressive impulses, or whether he was simply burying them more deeply within his troubled psyche.


At any rate, with their evil enemies vanquished, the little girls dwell in an apparent paradise. Darger’s palette is bright and cheery. The children are surrounded by flowers and butterflies. The Blengins are no longer monstrous dragons, but beautiful children with horns and butterfly wings. The ending of the picture cycle is far more unambiguously happy than the ending of the book. And certainly it’s far happier than Darger’s ending in real life.


So: what does this all mean, and why do we care? I hope that, in presenting this overview of Darger’s techniques and development, I’ve given you some sense of the intensity and seriousness of his artistic endeavors. It was through protracted, concentrated effort that Darger visualized his imaginary realm. He learned from repeated efforts, and refined his methods, just as trained artists do.


Was Henry Darger a sad and emotionally damaged man? Yes. But that isn’t why we find him interesting. We find him interesting because he transcended the particularity of his pain to comment on a world that we can all relate to. The moral issues with which Darger grappled are issues that confront everyone: the irreconcilable coexistence of good and evil; God’s silence and apparent willingness to tolerate the suffering even of the pious, the good and the innocent. These paradoxes, embedded within Darger’s Catholicism, were mirrored in American popular culture at large. Darger’s life spanned the age of Shirley Temple to that of Leave it to Beaver: an era when children, even naughty ones, were always unbelievably cute, and the nuclear family was sacrosanct. The images of childhood innocence that were ubiquitous in American pop culture—and that Darger copied into his watercolors—belied the horrific realities of child neglect and abuse, as the artist knew from firsthand experience. And after all, while Darger was creating his pictures of child torture, real children were being gassed in Nazi Germany. This was an era when difference (including Darger’s so-called “craziness”) was brutally stigmatized; when in the U.S., discrimination on racial or religious grounds was not only condoned, but legally enforced. And yet America was still ostensibly a land of equal opportunity for all, home of the free and the brave.


By juxtaposing pictures of the adorable Vivian girls with scenes of combat and torture, Darger unwittingly exposed not only his own internal psychological split, but the hypocrisy of contemporary American culture. Darger was an obsessive-compulsive accumulator of all sorts of information and materials, some of his own creation, and others purchased or picked up on the street. In this manner, nearly the entire twentieth century filtered through his dark little room: both hard news and popular culture, reality and fantasy. Darger's chosen task entailed crafting a viable synthesis of these disparate elements, a synthesis that may be read as nothing less than an allegorical history of the modern era. And that is what makes Henry Darger a great artist.