Any insight into the life and work of Henry Darger (1892-1973) must begin with two images, images that have become iconic in the study of outsider art. The first is a black and white photograph of Darger, taken near the end of the artist’s life by his neighbor, David Berglund. In the photo Darger sits on a flight of wooden steps, his shoulders stooped beneath a frayed jacket. His gaze is cast downwards and his eyes reveal the weariness of a life lived beyond its purpose. In his left hand he holds a pair of glasses, their heavy frames held together with a thick wrapping of black electrical tape. The second image, again a photograph by Berglund, is of Darger’s home: a cluttered room in the Chicago tenement where Darger spent the majority of his years in isolation, laboring over what has come to light as an incredibly unique and vastly influential grand opus of raw psychology.
The tragedy that would come to characterize Darger’s life began in early adolescence when, shortly after the death of his mother his younger sister was given up for adoption by their father. Suffering a shattered youth, Darger retreated into the role of a school yard bully whose fondness for starting fires eventually landed him in a home for wayward boys. Over the next few years the severity of his behavior increased until, in 1904, he was placed in the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children near Lincoln, Illinois. Throughout his five-year stay at the asylum, public allegations of abuse and misconduct on the part of staff doctors ran rampant in the local press (Bonesteel 2000:9). While Darger never spoke openly of his life there, it can be assumed that such an environment left a lasting scar on his psyche, not to mention his work to come. Fortunately, in 1909 he managed to escape to Chicago where he quickly found work as a janitor at St. Joseph’s Hospital, a job he would hold for the duration of his working life.
In 1917, living alone and supported by a salary that was modest at best, Darger began the process of reconstructing his shattered family by attempting to adopt a child. When his repeated efforts were met with an almost predictable string of rejections Darger’s desire for love and companionship began a decisive turn inwards. Still searching for the child to which he was denied in reality, a richly symbolic substitute was found in a newspaper clipping from the Chicago Daily News depicting the photograph of a five-year-old murder victim, Elsie Paroubek. Part of a growing personal archive of clippings gathered by Darger, there is no indication that the event or the subsequent article held any particular significance for him until he somehow misplaced it. Writing in his journal at the time, he begins to process this forfeiture of yet another family member, lamenting that “the huge disaster and calamity” of his loss “will never be atoned for,” but “shall be avenged to the uttermost limit” (Bonesteel 2000:10).
So begins Darger’s descent into the fantasy life that would sustain him for the next fifty years, ultimately producing one of the most involved creative endeavors ever executed: a fifteen thousand-page illustrated epic entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Recasting Elsie Paroubek as Annie Aronburg, the martyred leader of the eponymous slave rebellion, Darger himself is transformed into Captain Henry Darger, president of the “Children’s Protective Society,” sworn enemy “of all those who do the children any kind of harm” (Bonesteel 2000:12). Based loosely on the events of the Civil War, and incorporating biblical themes throughout, the story follows the trials of a race of children enslaved by adults who are led to freedom by the Vivian Sisters, nine girls with pure hearts and courage enough to stand up to the tyranny of their oppressors.
Strangely, the narrative is punctuated by frequent episodes of violence in which the author appears to revel in the details of the brutalities inflicted upon the children. Indulging at length in descriptions of strangulation, disembowlment and various scenes of torture, Darger’s work reveals certain sadistic tendencies at odds with his protective inclinations. This conflict is carried over into the vast body of illustrations accompanying Darger’s writing. Executed in crayon, pencil, and watercolor on horizontal scrolls of newsprint up to twenty feet long, Darger’s drawing are often populated with images of naked, cross-gendered children, bayonette-wielding soldiers and winged, serpent-like creatures. Adapted from tracings taken from a variety of salvaged sources, characters are frequently depicted against landscapes alternating between the Edenic and the apocalyptic: in panel after panel, lush foliage thriving beneath vibrant blue skies gives way to vast wastelands of scorched hillsides and dismembered corpses. In this world the artist is both creator and destroyer, capable of bringing about either heaven or hell according to his whims. At odds with both his reality and the deeply religious convictions that helped to shape it, Darger transforms himself through his work into a force of total control over a world of his making. “God is too hard to me,” he rages, “I will not bear it any longer . . . I’m my own man!” (McGregor 2002:23) His is a soul at war with itself, its battles waged within the tight walls of a one-room apartment.
The solitude of Darger’s life behind these walls was finally breached shortly before his death in 1973 when his landlord, the photographer Nathan Lerner was charged with organizing Darger’s belongings in preparation for Darger’s move to a nearby nursing home. Lerner and his wife Kiyoko had purchased the building in which Darger lived in 1955. As Darger kept to himself Lerner’s recorded recollections of their interactions tend to be peripheral, describing the old man as “odd at the very least, and maybe crazy” (MacGregor 2002:4). As the building’s caretakers the Lerners were permitted the occasional glimpse at the inside of Darger’s apartment and the work that filled it— exposure enough to recognize that something remarkable was taking place. However, only when Nathan Lerner and his assistant David Bergland began their work in the apartment after Darger’s move did the sheer magnitude of its contents come to light. Among the disarray and detritus of Darger’s belongings, the pair began to uncover scrapbooks filled with collage and drawings, as well as numerous volumes of writing, carefully typed, “bound [and] bundled, seemingly awaiting and audience” (Anderson 2001:11). In all, the tiny room yielded a six-volume illustrated weather journal containing ten years’ worth of daily entries, numerous personal diaries, a five-thousand page autobiography, the fifteen-thousand page Realms and its sequel, Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House, three handmade folios containing drawings measuring twelve feet long by two feet wide and a massive archive of proofs, test drawings and source material scrounged from sidewalks and garbage cans. Perplexed by their discovery, Lerner and Bergland asked Darger what he wanted done with his creations. “It’s too late now, throw it all away,” ” the old man reportedly replied,“ (MacGregor 2002:19).
One can only imagine the experience of finding such work buried deep within Darger’s apartment. John MacGregor, having devoted much of his career to the study of Darger and his work, captures the essence of the discovery when he “compare[s] the excavation of the chaotic contents of [the] room to an archaeological dig” (MacGregor 2002:9). Even more so, peering into Darger’s universe for the first time must have paralleled something akin to the first descent into the caves at Lascaux. Walking into the darkness of a place whose secrets have been hermetically protected from the outside world, what was revealed must have been entirely strange, yet completely compelling in its radiance. Imbued with a tangible tension between urges revealed and longings concealed, Darger’s creations continue to invite participation but refuse to disclose their primordial meanings. Fortunately, Lerner and Bergland recognized the immense value in what they found. Following Darger’s death on April 13, 1973, they set about the sorting of his possessions, carefully photographing his work in situ as they worked. Accepting their role as stewards of Darger’s legacy, the Lerners spent the next few years documenting and preserving his artwork and the great body of support material accompaning it.
In 1977, Darger’s illustrations made their public debut in a small exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center. In response to seeing his work for the first time, the art critic Jack Burnham proclaimed that “no European collection has a naive artist with the lyrical inventiveness of Henry Darger” (Bonesteel 2000:16). Indeed, by the time a traveling exhibit of Darger’s work was organized by the the Iowa Museum of Art in 1996, academics and eager collectors alike had begun to express an increasing interest in Darger’s vision.
Despite the difficulty of its subject matter, little girls depicted with penises and the violent treatment of children being obvious and often cited examples, the work has been included in both public and private collections, among them the Collection de l’Art Brut, the Musgrave Kinley Collection of Outsider Art at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and the Robert M. Greenberg Collection. In addition, the American Folk Art Museum in New York opened the Henry Darger Study Center in 2000, comprising the most comprehensive collection of Darger material to date. Made possible by a series of gifts and purchases, the Study Center’s holdings include the complete writings of the artist (over 30,000 pages), twenty-six large-scale illustrations, and an archive of Darger’s source materials. In keeping with the Center’s “key objective [of] making the artwork available to students, scholars, and people from the creative community,” access to the archives is granted for a variety of research projects, and ongoing thematic exhibitions of Darger’s work are displayed in the museum’s galleries (Anderson 2004:80). Given the sheer volume and immeasurable originality of Darger’s output, efforts to unravel and interpret his methods and intentions continues. Inspiring the engaged response of scholars and artists alike, Darger’s unique visions are invoked in literature, theater, and most recently, in the feature-length documentary by Jessica Yu, In the Realms of the Unreal: the Mystery of Henry Darger (Anderson 2004-2005:78).