Featured Artist of the Day: Henry Darger
About | Henry Darger (April 12, 1892[?] – April 13, 1973) was a reclusive American writer and artist who worked as a custodian in Chicago, Illinois. He has become famous for his posthumously-discovered 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript called 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 (“The Vivian Girls” / “In The Realms of the Unreal” for short), along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story. Darger’s work has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.
The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut (“raw art” or “rough art”), a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture; Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane-asylum inmates.
While Dubuffet’s term is quite specific, the English term “outsider art” is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or Naïve art makers who were never institutionalized/received a formal art education. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases their work is discovered only after their deaths, such as Henry Darger. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds. Henry Darger was a recluse, bouncing around from orphanage to orphanage as a child following the death of his parents. His artwork greatly reflected his own experiences of abandonment, extreme importance placed on religion, and often violence in his "Realms of the Unreal”.
The Vivian Girls | In the Realms of the Unreal is a 15,145 page work bound in fifteen immense, densely-typed volumes (with three of them consisting of several hundred illustrations, scroll-like watercolor paintings on paper derived from magazines and coloring books) created over six decades. The majority of the book, 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, follows the adventures of the daughters of Robert Vivian, seven princesses of the Christian nation of Abbieannia who assist a daring rebellion against the evil regime of child slavery imposed by John Manley and the Glandelinians. Children take up arms in their own defense and are often slain in battle or viciously tortured by the Glandelinian overlords. The elaborate mythology includes the setting of a large planet, around which Earth orbits as a moon (where most people are Christian and mostly Catholic), and a species called the “Blengigomeneans” (or Blengins for short), gigantic winged beings with curved horns who occasionally take human or part-human form, even disguising themselves as children. They are usually benevolent, but some Blengins are extremely suspicious of all humans, due to Glandelinian atrocities.
Once released from the asylum, Darger repeatedly attempted to adopt a child, but his efforts failed. Images of children often served as his inspiration, particularly a portrait from the Chicago Daily News from May 9, 1911: a five-year-old murder victim, named Elsie Paroubek. The girl had left home on April 8 of that year telling her mother she was going to visit her aunt around the corner from her home. She was last seen listening to an organ grinder with her cousin. Her body was found a month later in a sanitary district channel near the screen guards of the powerhouse at Lockport, Illinois. An autopsy found she had probably been suffocated — not strangled, as is often stated in articles about Darger. Paroubek’s disappearance and murder, her funeral, and the subsequent investigation, were the subjects of a huge amount of coverage in the Daily News and other papers at the time.
Elsie Paroubek, whose photograph inspired Darger to begin writing In the Realms of the Unreal.
This newspaper photo was part of a growing personal archive of clippings Darger had been gathering. There is no indication that the murder or the news photo and article had any particular significance for Darger, until one day he could not find it. Writing in his journal at the time, he began to process this forfeiture of yet another child, lamenting that “the huge disaster and calamity” of his loss “will never be atoned for”, but “shall be avenged to the uttermost limit”. According to his autobiography, Darger believed the photo was among several items that were stolen when his locker at work was broken into. He never found his copy of the photograph again. Because he couldn’t remember the exact date of its publication, he couldn’t locate it in the newspaper archive. He carried out an elaborate series of novenas and other prayers for the picture to be returned.
The fictive war that was sparked by Darger’s loss of the newspaper photograph of the murdered girl, whose killer was never found, became Darger’s magnum opus. He had been working on some version of the novel before this time (he makes reference to an early draft which was also lost or stolen), but now it became an all-consuming creation.
In The Realms of the Unreal, the “assassination of the child labor rebel Annie Aronburg… was the most shocking child murder ever caused by the Glandelinian Government” and was the cause of the war. Through their sufferings, valiant deeds and exemplary holiness, the Vivian Girls are hoped to be able to help bring about a triumph of Christianity. Darger provided two endings to the story, one in which the Vivian Girls and Christianity are triumphant and another in which they are defeated and the godless Glandelinians reign.
Darger’s human figures were rendered largely by tracing, collage, or photo enlargement from popular magazines and children’s books (much of the “trash” he collected was old magazines and newspapers, which he clipped for source material). Some of his favorite figures were the Coppertone Girl and Little Annie Rooney. He is praised for his natural gift for composition and the brilliant use of color in his watercolors. The images of daring escapes, mighty battles, and painful torture are reminiscent not only of epic films such as Birth of a Nation (which Darger might easily have seen) but of events in Catholic history; the text makes it clear that the child victims are heroic martyrs like the early saints. One idiosyncratic feature of Darger’s artwork is an apparent transgenderism: Characters are often portrayed unclothed or partially clothed and, regardless of ostensible gender, some females have penises.
In a paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence, Darger wrote of children’s right “to play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night’s season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart.”
For more about Henry Darger, visit this website.
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