From the Archives: this review first appeared on the old Skyscraper Magazine site back in July 2010. It is being republished here for your reading pleasure.
In American cultural history, there’s been no greater laborer in obscurity than Chicago’s Henry Darger. A janitor by day and self-taught artist, Darger developed and honed his skills as he worked on his extravagant pieces over the course of almost 55 years, most of which provided illustrations for his 15,000-plus page work in progress, 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. His rambling tale may well be the longest novel ever written. Even with that, Darger’s work wasn’t discovered until shortly before his death in 1973. Note to such laboring artists: if you’re going to leave a legacy of American outsider art squirreled away in your two-room apartment, be sure your landlord and his wife are art aficionados.
And now, a gorgeous new compendium simply titled Henry Darger allows us to view Darger’s work in about as large a format as most of us could imagine keeping in our homes. It’s difficult to reproduce the scale and impact of his paintings, which were often 10 to 12 feet long, but Henry Darger attempts to do so, even rendering some of his sprawling works in tri-folds tucked inside an already wide, hardcover book.
Edited by Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator of New York’s P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Henry Darger offers a handful of essays, including an engaging and informative introductory piece by Biesenbach himself, a generous overview of the artist’s work mapping Darger’s influences and even including about 60 reproductions from the typed pages of his 5,000-page autobiographical piece, “The History of My Life.” So cloistered was Darger his own work proves the primary source for most of the biographical data of his life. As Jessica Yu’s 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal revealed, Darger’s neighbors couldn’t even agree on the proper pronunciation of his last name.
Within these biographical details, we learn the awful facts of Darger’s childhood: institutionalization, sundry punishments he endured, designation as “feeble-minded” – essentially, it seems, for the sin of simply not fitting in (this despite his ability to read upon arriving at school and promptly being advanced from first grade to third.) Discovering the physical, mental, and possible sexual abuses of Darger’s youth, we’re left with an altered understanding of his obsession with the delicate, yet valiant, Vivian Girls, who suffered so much at the hands of the adult males in his works.
Of course, there’s a long tradition of storytelling which details innocent girls shadowed by the threat of violence. Consider the tale of Little Red Riding Hood – the wolf, surely a metaphor for the predatory older male – all the way up to Catherine Breillat’s crystalline depiction of the same themes in her recent film Bluebeard. Henry Darger took this theme and amplified it, expanded it geometrically, replicated it compulsively (arguably ad nauseum), over the course of his 15,145 page illustrated novel and its attendant artwork.
As Biesenbach details in his essay, Darger influenced a slew of artists and imitators. His imprint can be seen clearly, for example, in photography by Anthony Goicolea, in earthernware by Grayson Perry, and in elegant gouache paintings by Amy Cutler. He has prompted homage from musicians such as …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Camper Van Beethoven, Fucked Up, Natalie Merchant, and Sufjan Stevens. Even the cover for Animal Collective’s album Feels()2005 bears a clear tribute to Darger’s tableau style. The graphic novelist Neil Gaiman included a story in his Sandman series featuring a talented and artistic janitor, who is working on an enormous body of work. And this collection opens with an excerpt from the poem “Girls on the Run” by John Ashberry, which recounts adventures of the Vivian Girls in verse form, while also probing the conflated psyches of Darger with the poet penning each line. He has even inspired tattoos.
Of course, some popular references to the Vivian Girls seem little more than opportunities to name-check Darger. A way to identify with an esteemed outsider in the hope that some measure of his mystique is transferred to the name-dropper. This artist, though, was a reclusive but gifted janitor, not an extroverted pop star. If anything, Darger was a clinically introverted anti-star. That said, it isn’t difficult to see how anyone might identify with the enslaved, yet buoyant, Vivian Girls, not to mention Darger himself, whose own life mirrored the harrowing tales of young children he depicted.Visit: The Henry Darger Study Center
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon