gigatos | March 23, 2022
Henry Darger († April 13, 1973 ibid) was a reclusive American writer and artist who lived and worked as a janitor in Chicago.
He became known for the manuscript, discovered after his death, of 15,145 pages, illustrated with several hundred drawings and watercolors, entitled 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. Darger”s work became one of the most highly acclaimed of Outsider Art.
Darger was probably born on April 12, 1892.When he was four years old, his mother died after the birth of his sister, who was given up for adoption and whom he never met. Darger”s biographer, art historian and psychologist John M. McGregor, found that Henry Darger had two older sisters, but nothing is known about their whereabouts.
According to Darger”s own testimony, his father was very loving, and they lived together until 1900. Then his father, ill and impoverished, was placed in a nursing home and his son in a Catholic children”s home. Darger Sr. died in 1905, orphaned and hospitalized in Lincoln, Illinois, because “little Henry”s heart was not in the right place” (Stephen Prokopoff). According to John MacGregor, the diagnosis was actually “self-abuse,” which A. M. Holmes interprets as a euphemism for masturbation. Darger himself felt that his problem was seeing through the lies of adults, and as a result he became a know-it-all. He went through a prolonged period in which he felt compelled to make strange noises, a variety of Tourette”s syndrome.
The educational measures in the children”s home included hard work and harsh punishment, which Darger processed in In the Realms of the Unreal. Later he said that he also had good times there and, of course, had friends as well as enemies. During his time there, he received the news that his father had died.
A series of escape attempts ended successfully in 1908. According to his autobiography, he hitchhiked back to Chicago. On this trip, he experienced a huge tornado that devastated southern Illinois. He describes this as an “incredible flatulence of nature beyond human comprehension.” In Chicago he found work as a servant in a Catholic hospital and in this way he got by for the next 50 years.
Aside from his brief stint in the army, Darger”s life was template-like and seemed to vary little: He attended mass up to five times a day; he collected and hoarded an incredible amount of trash from the streets. His clothes were patched and worn, though he tried to keep them clean and neat. He was solitary and his only close friend, William Shloder, agreed with Darger about protecting abused and neglected children. The two intended to establish a “child protection agency” to place such children for adoption. However, Shloder left Chicago in the mid-1930s.
In 1930, Darger moved into an apartment on Chicago”s north side. The apartment”s landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, discovered his artistic work shortly before his death on April 13, 1973, the day after his 81st birthday, in the same Catholic hospital where his father had died. They took care of his estate, publicized his work, and contributed to such projects as the documentary In the Realms of the Unreal in 2004. Posthumously, Darger received international recognition.
The name Darger has become a household name in the world of Outsider Art. At the Outsider Art Fair, held annually in January in New York City, and at auction, his paintings are among the highest paid. The American Folk Art Museum in New York opened a “Henry Darger Study Center” in 2001. The “Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art” in Chicago plans to restore Henry Darger”s apartment.
Darger”s work contains many religious themes, but they are treated very idiosyncratically. In the Realms of the Unreal describes a large planet, with moons in orbit, inhabited by a majority of Christians, specifically Catholics.
Most of the story is about the adventures of Robert Vivian”s seven daughters, who are princesses of the Abbiennia people. They support the dangerous rebellion against John Manley”s cruel, child enslaving regime imposed by the Glandelinians. The Glandelinians resemble soldiers in the Confederate Army of the American Civil War. The children also take up arms to defend themselves, and are often slain in battle or tortured in the cruelest ways by the Glandelinians” leaders.
In the carefully crafted myth, there are still the “Blengigomeneans” or Blengins, winged beings with curved horns that occasionally take on human or human-like features. Usually they are benevolent towards the Vivian siblings.
The fictional war was sparked by Darger”s loss of a newspaper photograph of Elsie Paroubek, who had been strangled in Chicago in 1911 when she was five years old and whose killer has never been found. In his autobiography, Darger assumes that this photograph, along with numerous other belongings, was stolen during a break-in at his apartment. He never recovered this photo and when he discovered the picture in the newspaper archive of a public library, he was not allowed to copy it. The photo of Elsie Paroubek inspired him to create the character of Annie Aronburg and ultimately prompted him to write In the Realms of the Unreal.
In In the Realms of the Unreal, the assassination of the child rebel Annie Aronbourg is portrayed as the most shocking infanticide the Glandelin government has ever had to answer for, which is why it triggered the war. Through suffering in this war, the Vivian Girls hope to be able to achieve victory for Christianity. Darger envisioned two endings for the story. In one the Vivian Girls triumphed, in the other they were defeated and the godless Glandelinians took over.
Darger created his human figures largely with the help of collages, photocopies, enlargements of photos from popular magazines or illustrations from children”s books. Material was supplied by the old magazines and newspapers he hoarded. Some of his favorite characters were the “Coppertone Girl” and “Little Annie Rooney.” He is praised for his natural talent in composition and his sensitive use of color in his watercolors.
The images of daring escapes, mighty battles and painful agonies recall events in Catholic history. The text makes clear that the child victims are heroic martyrs, like the early saints.
A distinct feature in Darger”s artwork is his apparent ignorance of all things sexual. His figures, whether unclothed or only partially clothed, often show no gender. Some female figures even occasionally show a penis.
Some voices think that Darger was unfamiliar with female anatomy and that he saw the female sex as a symbol of power. This is indicated by a detailed description in a chapter of In the Realms of the Unreal, according to which girls can be as successful as boys. Others think that he painted girls after an image of the child Jesus.
Darger receives much attention for his depiction of appalling brutality towards children. It is sometimes assumed that Darger wrote and drew in this way because he was suppressing unconscious desires. Darger”s biographer John M. MacGregor speculated about whether Darger might have been the culprit in the death of Elsie Paroubek in 1911. MacGregor later defended his psychoanalytic view of Darger, but denied accusing him of murder.
The sequel to In the Realms of the Unreal is titled Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago. Begun in 1939, it is a Stephen King-esque story about a house inhabited by demons and haunting spirits. Or perhaps it has a similarly terrifying subconscious as the house in The Shining. Children disappear in the house and are later found brutally murdered. “The Vivian Girls” and a male friend are assigned to investigate and discover that the murders are the work of cruel ghosts. The girls drive the ghosts out of every single room until the house is cleansed.
In 1968, Darger became interested in researching his frustrations back to his childhood. It was the year he wrote The History of my Life, a 206-page book detailing his early life before it changed into the 4,672-page story of a giant tornado called “Sweetie Pie,” possibly based on memories of a tornado he had experienced decades earlier. He also kept a diary in which he recorded weather observations and his daily activities.
Darger often dealt with the plight of abused and neglected children. The children”s home where he lived was placed under supervision after a major scandal shortly before he left it. In addition, it is possible that he had seen victims of child abuse at the hospital where he worked.
Since his death in 1973 and after the discovery of his extensive oeuvre, there have been numerous references to his work, especially since the 1990s and particularly in the field of music.
One of the earliest receptions occurred in 1979 by “Snakefinger” Philip Lithman Roth. Other examples include Camper van Beethoven”s Monks of Doom on “The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company,” 1989; Natalie Merchant on “Motherland,” 2001; From Autumn to Ashes on “Abandon your friends,” 2005; Fucked Up on “Hidden World,” 2006; Sufjan Stevens on “The Avalanche,” 2006; and Dead Low Tide on “Dead Low Tide.” The cover of John Zorn”s album “Music for Children” used drawings by Darger.
The band Vivian Girls took their name directly from Henry Darger and also refers to his work in other ways.
In literature, there are references to Darger in the poetry collection Girls on the Run by John Ashbery. Likewise, Neil Gaiman refers to him in his story “Going Inside.” In this story, Delirium is kept from going too deep into her own psyche by five mentally disabled people and their guard dog. One of these people, an old man, writes and draws in the solitude of his home on a comprehensive manuscript, strongly reminiscent of Darger and his work. The reference, however, is more emotional than factual, where, for example, the man punishes himself for writing too few pages a day.
In 2004, choreographer Pat Graney staged his multimedia performance The Vivian Girls. From the same year comes a film documentary by Jessica Yu.