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Henry Darger and His Realms

January 14, 1999 to March 13, 1999

Henry Darger (1892-1973), subject two years ago of a highly acclaimed retrospective at the Museum of American Folk Art, is today well known both within and beyond the field of "outsider" art. Indeed, Darger's biography would seem to make him the quintessential "outsider" artist. A recluse who could not conduct a coherent conversation or even finish a sentence, he spent most of his adult years shuffling between his rented room on Chicago's North Side and menial jobs in various Catholic hospitals. After lameness forced him to retire in 1963, he could be seen scavenging the streets for string and twine, and heard behind his closed door conducting loud arguments with the God who thwarted him by causing the twine to twist and tangle. When Darger died at the age of 81, his landlord, Nathan Lerner, was amazed to discover, in addition to a pack-rat's den full of old coloring books, comics, Pepto-Bismol bottles and 500 balls of string, a voluminous life's work documenting, in 15,145 typewritten pages and several hundred mural-sized watercolors, a fictional war between the good, Christian nation of Abbiennia and a child-enslaving kingdom of evil men called Glandelinians.

Darger's opus, which must have consumed the better part of sixty years, bears the cumbersome title The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal or the Glandelinian War Storm or the Glandico-Abbiennian Wars, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (for short, In the Realms of the Unreal). The epic's heroines are the aforementioned Vivian girls, seven sisters of angelic beauty, piety and goodness, who come to the defense of the child slaves and lead them in protracted and often gruesome battles against their Glandelinian tormentors. Adult males figure as generals and soldiers on both sides of the fray, but adult women are conspicuously absent from the story--perhaps reflecting the fact that Darger never really knew his mother, who died following childbirth when he was four. Similarly, Darger's obsession with the victimization of innocent children may derive from his own travails as an orphaned boy and his longing for the infant sister who was adopted out immediately after their mother's death. Darger's father, fifty-four when his wife died, tried for a while to raise his little son, but failing health made it impossible for him to continue, and when Henry was eight, he was placed in a Catholic children's home, The Mission of Our Lady of Mercy.

Young Henry Darger was clearly a handful. A pugnacious boy with a suspiciously keen interest in fires, he later claimed to have slashed a teacher for disciplining him and to have defecated on the floor of the Mission's dining hall. Incidents such as these got him expelled from public school, and when he was about ten, he was sent to the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, approximately 150 miles southwest of his native Chicago. Although Henry was a bright child who had skipped second grade and possessed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War, his incarceration with the mentally handicapped severely stunted his further emotional and intellectual development. Conditions at Lincoln were appalling, but Henry was apparently not unhappy there until his father died, in 1905. Hereafter, Darger periodically attempted to escape, usually returning voluntarily, until finally, in 1909 at the age of seventeen, he made a definitive break and settled in Chicago. With the exception of a brief stint in the army during World War I (he was discharged quickly, ostensibly due to eye trouble), his many remaining decades were circumscribed by the narrow compass of his solitary room and mindless hospital jobs. His real life, it may be said, was lived solely within The Realms of the Unreal.

The leading scholar of Darger's work, John MacGregor, has stated that the entire 15,145-page manuscript was written between 1910 and 1921, although there is some evidence indicating that the writing may have continued into the 1930s. In any event, it is apparent that the majority of the large watercolors postdate the completion of the text. These watercolors are probably not illustrations in the conventional sense, although they are frequently referred to as such. The text shows few signs of editorial corrections or changes, and it is conceivable that Darger seldom or never went back to reread it. He did not need to, for both the writing and the illustrations were part of an ongoing story that he held in his head at all times. Some of the images do correlate roughly to passages in the manuscript, but many do not, and it is likely that the saga continued to evolve in Darger's mind long after the writing was finished. Though the original sequence of the watercolors has unfortunately not been recorded, they were at one time bound into booklike volumes, and their long narrow format suggests a continuous visual narrative reminiscent of the comic-strips that Darger loved and collected.

MacGregor has poignantly theorized that the Vivian girls functioned as family to Darger: substitutes not only for his lost sister, but for all the adult friends and companions he seemingly never had. Initially, the images Darger collected served as a sort of surrogate family album, and portraits of the girls--mainly photos or cutouts from magazines with painted and penciled amplifications--lined the walls of his room. Like many a self-taught artist (one thinks of Grandma Moses, whose methods were somewhat similar), he began by using pre-existing printed images, which he altered to suit his purposes. Increasingly, however, these images were too limited to encompass the grandeur of his vision, so he collaged or traced them into larger compositions. The tracings proved more satisfactory than the collages, for in these Darger could more easily modify details and add his own expressive color. However, his real technical breakthrough came in 1944, when he began having photographic enlargements made of his source material. The enlargements facilitated a far more complex process, enabling the artist not only to work bigger (since many of the source images were quite small) but to mix and match body parts and other details, retracing the composite and then having the tracing photographically enlarged. This curious procedure is typical of the manner in which truly great self-taught artists over the years systematically hone their methods to the point where their skills, finally, are as effective as those of their trained peers.

Darger's images came from three principal sources: coloring books, comics and advertisements for children's fashions. As such, his work retains shades of the saccharine sweetness typical of popular American illustration at mid century, but with a bizarre twist. Today it is commonplace to poke fun at the faux innocence of the 1940s and '50s (as in the recent movie Pleasantville), and the mass media now is crammed with depictions of explicit sex and violence. However, a boy who, like Henry, had never experienced a normal adolescent coming-of-age and who had virtually no close friends of either gender would not have been able to guess from most mid-century films and magazines that sex as such (beyond a dry kiss or a warm embrace) existed. Nor did coverage of the two world wars, which Darger must have followed, incorporate anything approaching the graphic gore that has since become routine. Bedeviled by sexual impulses he could not fully comprehend or express and by overwhelming rages, Darger developed a sharp sensitivity to the suppressed eroticism and subliminal terror that lay imbedded in the cheery images he appropriated. Often stripped of their clothing and placed in the midst of horrific battle scenes, these once benign figures acquired an entirely new set of meanings in Darger's work. By recontextualizing these images, he simultaneously deconstructed them, in the process unwittingly exposing the hypocrisy of the twentieth-century American dream.

This aspect of Darger's work accounts for much of its appeal to contemporary audiences. Postmodernism has sensitized people to such techniques as appropriation, deconstruction and recontextualization, all of which figure prominently in Darger's universe. The denizens of the Realms, like Bobbsey Twins with penises (a feature which Darger painstakingly added to almost all his naked children, regardless of gender), offer a welcome antidote to the shallow dishonesty of Baby Boomers' childhood storybooks. We may never know why Darger chose to give little girls penises, but it must be said that the Vivian girls are true trans-gender heroines, who possess all the stereotypical female virtues as well as the courage and combat skills that, at least in Darger's day, would only have been found in male heroes. Darger's idiosyncratic handling of gender issues is yet another facet that makes his work especially relevant to today's viewers. However, one key postmodern device that is notably missing from Darger's repertoire is irony. In its narrative thread, Darger's epic is distinctly premodern, recalling the history paintings of earlier eras, with their grandiose battle scenes and moralistic use of allegory.

The war between the Abbiennians and the Glandelinians is nothing less than a global struggle between good and evil, reflecting on one level a battle being waged within Darger's very soul, and on another mirroring the destructive course of modern history. Darger retained a child's simplistic faith in God: He did not understand why, if he went to Mass dutifully (and he did, as many as four or five times a day), his prayers should not be answered. The fury that he felt when God nonetheless ignored his pleas found expression in the predations of the Glandelinians, whose side Darger himself (as a character in his own story) occasionally joined. While there is something exceptionally naive about Darger's fights with God, the artist was actually grappling with complex theological matters such as temptation and divine justice. The very names of his combatants, suggesting the Church on the one hand and glands on the other, subliminally evoke the conflict between the spiritual and the physical. Again and again in The Realms of The Unreal, Darger confronts the question of God's silence. Why, he asks repeatedly, does God allow innocent children to suffer? It is a question that, in our age of holocausts, many more sophisticated observers have been unable to answer.

Darger was an obsessive-compulsive accumulator of all sorts of information and materials, some of his own creation (like his drawings or the notebooks in which he compiled endless weather reports), and others purchased or picked up on the street (eyeglasses, rubber stamps, children's books). In this manner, from 1909 until 1973, 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. Unfortunately, the magnitude of this achievement has too often been obscured by the delimiting "outsider" label, with its excessive emphasis on biographical detail and mental derangement. While Darger's inner conflicts are obviously expressed in his work (as is the case with every artist), his importance lies in his ability to transcend the sadness of his daily life and create statements of universal human significance.