Art and Myth
Henry Darger (1892-1973) is in many respects the prototypical “outsider” artist. A recluse who shuttled between meager lodgings in a Chicago rooming house and menial jobs at local hospitals, he secretly harbored an extraordinarily vast and rich fantasy life. Both his immense novel, In the Realms of the Unreal (fifteen principal volumes, comprising 15,145 pages, and a sequel of 8,500 pages), and his artwork (estimated to consist of several hundred watercolor and pencil drawings of various sizes) revolve around a fictional war between the supremely good, Catholic nation of Abbiennia and its evil enemy, atheistic Glandelinia. The main characters are children: the seven angelic Vivian sisters; their boy- and girl-scout allies and foes; and masses of enslaved children, whose rebellion from their Glandelinian oppressors has triggered the war. Adding an extra touch of quirkiness to the drawings, the children are frequently “nuded” (Darger’s term) and endowed with little penises, regardless of gender. Adult men command battalions on both sides of the conflict, but grown women are almost never seen.
Jean Dubuffet defined Art Brut (“outsider” art’s European antecedent) as art created beyond the purview of received culture. Although Dubuffet tried to avoid directly correlating Art Brut with madness, it was from the start evident that, in media-saturated America or Europe, distance from received culture was largely determined by an artist’s mental state. As a result, “outsider” art as a whole, and Henry Darger in particular, have suffered from a tendency to dwell excessively on biographical and psychological details. The ostensible “artlessness” of Art Brut or “outsider” art creates further complications: is the work merely a psychiatric artifact, of essentially clinical interest, or is it in fact art? To the extent that the work is an artifact—formless and incoherent—it may be “pure” but it will also be unintelligible to all but its creator. Even the craziest artists are not entirely immune from mainstream influences, however, and the greatest “outsiders” (including Darger) are valued precisely because they achieved a mastery over form and content that equals or even exceeds that of most trained artists. We appreciate these psychologically impaired creators less because they give us access to their private worlds, than because of what they tell us about ourselves.
It could be argued that Darger’s written oeuvre is in fact more artifact than art. A plotless, unstructured narration, In the Realms of the Unreal meanders through meticulously documented battles, horrific natural disasters and plucky adventures without ever getting anywhere until the final 16 pages, when the war is rapidly brought to an end. (The Abbiennians win, though this outcome had previously often seemed in doubt.) The text itself seems to be pieced together from a miscellany of disparate sources: everything from newspaper articles to Pilgrim’s Progress. Darger bends these texts to his own idiosyncratic purposes, changing words and syntax slightly and inserting his characters’ invented names as needed. The length of the text overall, and in particular of its more gruesome passages, makes it virtually unreadable. No one, not even the preeminent Darger scholar John MacGregor, has succeeded in reading all 15,145 pages. In addition to the Realms and its even more grisly sequel Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House, Darger toward the end of his life kept three journals in which he compulsively recorded his sparse daily activities, the weather and his artistic progress. In 1968, five years after retiring from his last hospital job, he also began a curious autobiography. Though the first 206 pages are relatively factual (and actually comprise most of what we know about Darger’s life), the bulk of the manuscript may well be Darger’s most frightening creation: 5,085 endlessly repetitive pages documenting, in graphic detail, the gory predations of a supernaturally powerful twister incongruously named “Sweetie Pie.”
Various conflicting dates have been proposed, both by Darger and others, for the writing of the Realms. The story was probably formulated in the author’s head years before he began writing, and it continued to evolve in his drawings long after the writing had stopped. The first, presumably handwritten drafts, possibly begun as early as 1910, may have been lost or stolen. The typed manuscript that we know was begun in 1916 and probably completed around 1932, when the first seven volumes were bound. (A further eight volumes were never bound, and it is not clear if they were written later.) Though Darger created a number of ancillary images (mostly of single figures) while he was still writing the Realms, it is evident that the bulk of his mature pictorial oeuvre was completed between 1932 and 1965. During this period, he also wrote Crazy House and kept the weather and art journals, but he devoted most of his creative energies to image making. By the time Darger began his final written work--the daily diary and the autobiography--he had probably largely or completely stopped making art.
Despite the continuity of content that exists between Darger’s writings and his watercolors, it is misleading to refer to the latter as illustrations of the former. Not only were the two bodies of work done at different times, but there is little direct correlation between them. Not surprisingly, Darger’s earliest artwork is most closely related to the manuscript, though it is unlikely that he made a regular practice of referring to the text while drawing. (Sometimes, conversely, he seems to have done the pictures first, and then written about them.) Later, as the narrative evolved in his head, he crafted scenes that carry the story in previously uncharted directions.
One of the principal differences between Darger’s writings and his artwork is the treatment of violent subject matter. The artist’s reputation for gore is based principally on his writings and is belied by the cheery colors and pastoral subject matter found in many of the watercolors. Even the battle pictures are on the whole quite tame. Only a relative handful depict the disembowelings and strangulations for which the artist is, regrettably, best known. Curiously, whereas in the novel the soldiers are mainly adults, in the watercolors children are increasingly active as combatants. And though the Glandelinians, in the text, frequently strip their child victims as a prelude to further tortures, in the images nudity is both more pervasive and more matter-of-fact. Darger seems comparatively at ease with sexuality, which earlier would have triggered a frenzy of violence. Perhaps as the artist entered middle age, the sexual and aggressive drives of adolescence and early adulthood diminished. Or maybe picture-making itself had a sedative effect, allowing Darger to more completely visualize and thereby inhabit a soothing alternative reality.
In his artwork, Darger succeeded in bringing order to the chaos of his mind, something he could not achieve through writing alone. Unlike his writings, Darger’s watercolors have compositional structure and a stylistic development that evidence ever-growing skill. Initially, his approaches to image making and writing were similar. Just as he extracted texts from preexisting sources, he collected evocative photographs and printed illustrations, which he modified with paint or pencil, much as he might alter a text by interpolating his own words. Sometime in the mid to late ‘teens, Darger began portraying his cast of characters, starting with the Vivian girls and their friends, and progressing to the generals. By the 1920s, he was able to draw simple images—such as regimental flags and the winged monsters he called Blengins—without directly collaging source material into his work. However, his battle scenes (usually relying heavily on collaged elements) were chaotic, a jumble of vignettes with no underlying thematic or pictorial organization.
By the early 1930s, Darger had invented a new way of dealing with pictorial source material (mainly coloring books, comics and children’s fashion illustrations). Although he would retain a lifelong aversion to freehand drawing, he found he could achieve greater inventive freedom by tracing, rather than cutting and pasting, his printed prototypes. Watercolors done in the 1930s usually depict single scenes on 19˝ x 24˝ sheets. Accordingly, the overall scale of the compositions is small, especially as compared to Darger’s later work. There is little nudity during this period, and much emphasis on the elaborate dresses worn by the Vivian girls. The styling of these outfits has a distinctly prim, prewar look, with narrow silhouettes and knee-length skirts, especially for the older girls. Abbiennian uniforms are generally yellow and purple, the Easter colors. Although the earliest of these sheets were probably intended as stand-alone works, Darger gradually began to glue them together. The resulting long, scroll-like panels do not form sequential narratives in the comic-strip sense, but may instead represent aspects of a single episode, glimpsed from different points in time or space. Evidently, Darger was aiming to produce broad, comprehensive views. To do so, he gradually taught himself to meld two 19˝ x 24˝ sheets into a single image. At first he painted the two halves separately and only glued them together after they had been completed. One can follow his progress by marking the accuracy with which the two halves match up at the seam. A breakthrough of sorts was achieved when he learned to compose his watercolors after gluing the sheets.
By the mid 1940s, Darger was creating the long, pictorially cohesive narratives (up to 70˝ wide) for which he is famous. Starting around 1944, he began having his printed sources enlarged photographically at a neighborhood drugstore. These enlargements were expensive for someone with Darger’s limited income, so it probably took him several years to achieve a critical mass. As the size of his image bank grew, so did the size of his figures and of the works themselves. (Later works often exceed 100˝ in length.) Although Darger often reused favorite images, he evidenced increasing versatility in his manipulation of these sources: combining body parts from disparate prototypes, and “nuding” children who were clothed in the original illustrations. Nudity becomes more common during the 1940s, while the prim purple and yellow costumes are supplanted by the looser, more casual dress styles of the postwar period.
Virtually all of the watercolors from the 1940s onward are double-sided. It appears that at first Darger pasted together some of the small, one-sided works done in the 1930s simply to get larger sheets. In these cases, the sequence of early images may be fairly random, and there is usually as much as a decade’s time gap between the works on the recto and the verso. A number of the subsequent pairings also lack any contextual or even temporal connection, but others were clearly intended to function as mates. In the latter works, Darger would often present two views of the same scene (for example, one looking north and the other south) so that the two sides, if imagined in tandem, form a 360-degree panorama.
It has thus far been impossible to reconstruct the exact sequence in which Darger created his watercolors. However, it is unlikely that they ever formed a logical narrative progression, as is the norm with book illustrations. More plausibly, Darger shifted focus from one theme to the next, as inspiration or obsession moved him. Nevertheless, while there may be no chronological arc to the story told in Darger’s images, it does appear that his latest works (judging by size and pictorial complexity) depict the end of the Glandico-Abbiennnian war and its euphoric aftermath. In this phase, the atrocities that formerly served as a primary focus for Darger are isolated and encapsulated in Glandelinian statues and propaganda pictures, which have now been seized by the victorious Abbiennian army. Darger’s attempt to distance himself from his past iconography may represent a psychological split: a failure to come to terms with his own evil impulses. Darger’s authorial presence, too, is more lightly felt in these late works. The once routine captions are now sometimes augmented by dialogue balloons (shifting narrative responsibility onto the children) or dispensed with entirely. The almost complete effacement of “bad” Henry Darger (an important character in the written version of the story) makes for an idyllic world, wherein children and Blengins cavort in a flower-filled paradise.
Darger’s inability to accept the coexistence of good and evil in human nature is both the underlying cause of his lifelong psychological anguish and a central leitmotif in his work. Whereas children’s fantasy literature (from Darger’s beloved Wizard of Oz to today’s Harry Potter series) often revolves around conflicts between good and evil, the “good” characters, such as the Wizard and Harry, are nonetheless flawed. The Vivian girls, however, are saintly creatures whose unadulterated goodness challenges credulity. These paragons of virtue were undoubtedly a legacy of Darger’s Catholic upbringing, which he continued to accept with the naive literalism of a child. Nonetheless, he was baffled by the religion’s evident inconsistencies. How is it that one could be a “bad” boy and yet have all one’s sins cleansed through the simple acts of confession and penance? Conversely, and more to the point, how could one do everything in one’s power to lead a pious life (as Darger did, going to Mass up to five times a day) and still seemingly be abandoned by God?
The mystery of God’s silence in the face of unimaginable acts of human cruelty is, of course, a problem of universal significance. Furthermore, attempts to paper over the ugly side of life with banal platitudes and saccharine or heroic imagery were rampant in twentieth-century America. This was a time when the failings of public figures (from Roosevelt’s paralysis to Kennedy’s philandering) were discreetly ignored. The period during which Darger created his watercolors spans the age of Shirley Temple to that of Leave it to Beaver: an era when children, even naughty ones, were always ineffably 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 sometimes horrific realities of child neglect and abuse that the artist had experienced at first hand during a boyhood spent largely in custodial institutions. 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 apparent “craziness”) was brutally stigmatized; when even 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 occasional torture, Darger unwittingly exposed not only his own internal psychological split, but the hypocrisy of contemporary American culture. The inability to openly acknowledge and deal with evil impulses was not his alone, but also that of society at large. And just as this split was unbearably painful for Darger, it ultimately proved untenable for the American nation. The tumult of the 1960s ushered in a protracted period of national self-examination and efforts to right prior wrongs. We would like to believe that we are as a result more tolerant, and certainly the most overt forms of discrimination have now been outlawed. In contrast to the “Pollyanna” views common 50 years ago, Americans today seem almost obsessed with the dark side: presidential peccadilloes become cause for impeachment, movies contain episodes of graphic violence that rival any in Darger’s work, and parents worry constantly about child molestation. Routing out evil is surely preferable to ignoring it, yet one may wonder whether in some cases these efforts have not gone too far, fostering attitudes that are either unduly anxious or excessively judgmental.
There is little doubt that changes in American consciousness over the past several decades have created an atmosphere especially receptive to Darger’s work. Popular culture has all but supplanted high culture as our primary aesthetic reference point, and pop iconography is now accepted as a significant component of serious art. Whereas Darger would at one time have been derided for copying, Pop Art taught us that one of the best ways to comment upon popular culture is to quote from it. However, whereas artists such as Andy Warhol idealized pop icons like Marilyn Monroe, Darger felt betrayed by popular culture, and his work explores its deceptions.
Our fascination with Darger is in part an extension of the contemporary obsession with the dark side of human nature. Audiences always complete works of art by supplying their own interpretations, and this is especially so in the case of “outsiders,” who are generally incapable of voicing their intentions. However, all true art embodies levels of meaning that the artist never consciously intended. It is these multiple levels of meaning that permit great art to awaken responses across generations and that allow for its longevity. And it is the related element of ambiguity that gives Darger’s art its enduring resonance—despite or because of its insoluble mysteries.
We would like to thank Kiyoko Lerner and Colleen Goldsborough for their invaluable help in organizing the present exhibition, and the American Folk Art Museum for so generously lending a selection of Darger’s preliminary source material. We are particularly grateful to Brooke Anderson, Director and Curator of AFAM’s Contemporary Center, for her knowledgeable guidance in this regard, and to Ann-Marie Reilly for expediting the loan process. Much of the information in the checklist essay is based on Michael Bonesteel’s book, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, and, especially, on John MacGregor’s Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal. Copies of these books may be ordered for $ 85.00 each, plus $ 15.00 each (or $ 20.00 for both books) for shipping and handling. New York residents, please add sales tax. Checklist entries include references to these books, where applicable, as well as the Nathan Lerner Living Trust’s inventory numbers.
Note: For the first time, approximate dates have been assigned to the works in the present exhibition. While we hope that this will facilitate a deeper understanding of Darger’s overall development, we also recognize that the process of assigning dates entails a risk of error. It is likely that future research will make it possible to date Darger’s work with a greater degree of accuracy. The dates suggested below should not be taken as the final word, but rather as the first step in an ongoing process.