“I figure that it’s better to be a sucker who makes something than a wise guy who is too cautious to make anything at all.”
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?” 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” 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,” 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.” 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
Note: opening quote is from Klaus Biesenbach, introduction to Henry Darger, ed. Klaus Biesenbach (New York: Prestel, 2009), 23.