In 1972, the retired custodian Henry Darger left his rented room in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago to move to a nursing home. The room had been his home for over four decades, and in it he left behind a trove that astonished his landlord: it included a six-volume weather journal, a 5,000-page autobiography, a 15,000-page novel, and several hundred drawings, paintings, and collages. Darger, his biographers believe, had never shown these works to anyone.

The most ambitious of Darger’s literary and artistic endeavors was his illustrated epic about an imaginary world of rival nations divided over the practice of child enslavement and exploitation, 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. In this sprawling tale of good and evil, the heroic Vivian Girls—daughters of the righteous ruler of Abbieannia—battle the evil Glandelinians, whom they despise for holding children in bondage. Darger is thought to have embarked on The Realms of the Unreal in the 1910s, likely adding illustrations of the Vivian Girls and their allies and adversaries from the 1920s or 1930s onward. He pictures a typically fraught episode from the saga in a pencil-and-watercolor drawing, adopting the bright colors, expressive gestures, propulsive action, and descriptive captions of the comic strips to which he turned for inspiration.

Darger found these comic strips—along with newspapers, magazines, advertisements, coloring books, and religious icons—on his walks through Chicago. Once in his room, he copied, traced, and cut and pasted the figures that intrigued him, whether from posters of Shirley Temple or prayer cards of the Madonna and Child. Next, he incorporated these figures into his own works, as in an expansive watercolor in which the Vivian Girls, tied to tree trunks, witness the slaughter of children by the Glandelinians. This work, like others by Darger, raises difficult interpretive questions. What are we to make of the frequent neglect, abuse, and sexualization of Darger’s young subjects? “Does the artist support this horror,” a curator has asked, “or does he condemn it?”1 Darger, a devout Catholic who was orphaned and institutionalized at an early age, regarded himself as a “protector” of children in adulthood and identified children as “more important to God than the grownups”2 in his autobiography. While early writing on Darger portrayed his preoccupation with children as the symptom of psychological trauma or mental illness, more recent accounts have explored the ways his work probes the violence—“racial, ethnic, and sexual violence,”3 scholar Michael Moon explains—rampant in 20th-century popular culture and often directed toward minors.

Though living and working in isolation, Darger intuited many strategies of 20th-century avant-gardes. Like Dada and Surrealist artists, for instance, he appropriated found images and produced startling compositions by juxtaposing unrelated found and made images. In one such composition, Darger pasted a clipped black-and-white photograph of a young girl with a shy smile and frilly dress in front of a magical creature, drawn and painted by hand, whose richly striped and stippled wings hover conspicuously in the background. Because Darger developed these techniques at a distance from art schools or communities, he has most often been described as an “outsider” artist, active beyond the traditional sites of art training, production, and display. Darger himself, however, had a different conception of his practice. In his introduction to The Realms of the Unreal, readers are invited to “find here many stirring scenes that are not recorded in any true history, great disasters that are awful in magnitude: enormous battles, big fires, awful tragedies, adventures of heroes and heroines.”4 Darger—at least in the world of The Realms—is the insider, illuminating triumphs and catastrophes excluded from “true history.”

Annemarie Iker, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, 2021


  1. Michel Thévoz, “The Strange Hell of Beauty…,” in Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum, ed. Brooke Davis Anderson (New York: American Folk Art Museum/Harry N. Abrams, 2001), 15.

  2. Henry Darger, “The History of My Life,” quoted in Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, ed. Michael Bonesteel (New York: Rizzoli, 2000), 240.

  3. Michael Moon, Darger’s Resources (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 20.

  4. Henry Darger, “Introducing 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,” quoted in Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, ed. Michael Bonesteel (New York: Rizzoli, 2000), 43.

Wikipedia entry
Introduction
Henry Joseph Darger Jr. (; April 12, 1892 – April 13, 1973) was an American writer, novelist and artist who worked as a hospital 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, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story.The visual subject matter of his work ranges from idyllic scenes in Edwardian interiors and tranquil flowered landscapes populated by children and fantastic creatures, to scenes of horrific terror and carnage depicting young children being tortured and massacred.: 106  Much of his artwork is mixed media with collage elements. Darger's artwork has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.
Wikidata
Q721013
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Introduction
Now considered one of the most notable American "outsider artists," Darger was a reclusive Chicago janitor whose work was discovered after his death by his landlord. He spent some of his early life in and out of an asylum, and by 1920, had begun work on his epic "The Story of the Vivian Girls in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal or the Glandelinian War Storm or the Glandico-Abbienian Wars as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion" (also known as "Realms of the Unreal") - a 13,000 page mixed-media work with elaborate, cartoon-like watercolor illustrations. At the time of his death, he was at work on an autobiography, which had reached upwards of 2,600 pages.
Nationality
American
Gender
Male
Roles
Artist, Writer, Naive Artist, Illustrator, Painter
Names
Henry Darger, Henry J. Darger
Ulan
500061883
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License

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