We read everyday of outsiders who become violent. Here is the story of an outsider who found another way: art.
When Henry Darger passed away in 1973 at the age of eighty-one, no one knew much about the reclusive man who had worked as a janitor for several hospitals in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. He seemed generally unremarkable to those who met him, although his neighbors found him odd, especially the way he talked to himself in various dialects and voices when he was alone in his apartment. Shortly before his death, his neighbors and landlords opened his small room to discover a hidden world. Darger had created over 300 paintings, some ten feet long, and many of them painted on both sides. These paintings illustrated a novel of 15,145 pages titled 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 and a sequel of over 10,000 pages, Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago. There were also journals of supplemental materials, including hymns which had been given new lyrics for his new world, and an autobiography which told the events of Darger’s unusual life. It was all colorful and eerie, a wild combination of the innocent with the horrifying. This film, In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger by Jessica Yu, reveals the rich inner world of a true outsider in all its facets. Narrated by a young Dakota Fanning, the film is spellbinding and disturbing.
Video via accochamps on YouTube.
The youth of Henry Darger was a tumultuous one. His mother died giving birth to a baby sister who was adopted before Henry could ever meet her; his kind and loving father grew too ill to care for him and died. Attending a catholic boys home in Chicago, Henry was rebellious and made strange noises which upset classmates and teachers. These noises may have been the result of Tourette’s Syndrome, but they resulted in his institutionalization at the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. His treatment there was full of severe punishment, forced labor, and abuse. He eventually ran away from the asylum and found work as a janitor, by which he supported himself for more than fifty years.
His art reveals a simple-minded genius working through the events of a childhood that haunted him for a lifetime. Filled with self-loathing, he was nonetheless industrious and devoted, teaching himself to draw and paint, making collages and saving his money to purchase photo enlargements of figures he clipped from magazines and newspapers. These would become templates for his characters. Possessed with a natural eye, Darger is praised for his composition and the brilliant color of his watercolors. Full of daring escapes and epic battles, his art work is prized in museum collections. On the disturbing side, it is is characterized not only by the juxtaposition of beauty and violence, but by anatomic confusion likely stemming from his early abuse. Many of his paintings feature unclad transgendered girls bearing male genitalia. Whether this comes from lack of understanding, from a desire to impart some sort of masculine strength to his heroines, or from identifying them as a feminine part of himself, the effect is jarring.
Paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, Darger laid forth a child’s right “to play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night’s season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart”. Even with his reduced capacity for human interaction and his mental difficulties, Darger was well-educated and idealistic in his championing of his fantasy children. A man of many contradictions, he is one of the giants of the movement known as outsider art.