Despite the growing canon of Outsider Art, Chicago’s Henry Darger stands among one of its central and most significant figures. Intensely reclusive, he worked by day as a hospital janitor, a banal occupation that could not be more different from his inner life in his one-room apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. His habitat was a tangible reflection of his rich imagination, a cluttered and controlled chaos, a whimsy that tapped into Darger’s highly complex psychology within an archive of compulsions.
His visual art, collages with his own illustrations, as well as his 15,145-page novel, In the Realms of the Unreal, focused on the “Vivian Girls.” His written opus and his visual work was spurred by a newspaper article from 1911 in the Chicago Daily News about a murder victim, Elsie Paroubek. The resulting surreal world he created navigated the light and the dark in both bizarre and truly beautiful ways. He collected clippings about the child and also collected images of little girls and soldiers that he would trace or paste into his works as a collage.
For his 125th birthday, Chicago’s Outsider Art haven, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, is celebrating with a full year of exhibitions and related events called, Chicago’s Henry Darger. Through March 26th, Unreal Realms is on view as a contextual exhibition showing Darger in conversation with other outsider artists including Adolf Wölfli, A.G. Rizzoli, Charles A.A. Dellschau, and Ken Grimes. Presenting the work by these artists with work by Darger including a panoramic, two-sided work on paper residing in the middle of the main gallery space, is an effective curatorial choice. This large-scale work is holding court and visually collaborating with the other artists’ works.
In Darger’s 18 At Norma Catherine. But wild thunderstorm with cyclone like wind saves them from sometime in the mid-twentieth century, the mixed media work shows a mayhem so prevalent in many of his works. Soldiers with skeletal and malevolent faces run rampant, grabbing helpless little girls amid a backdrop nodding to an equally-malevolent environment. Trees bend with the high winds while lightning cracks through the sky. It is a snapshot of pandemonium and apocalypse resulting in a deep loss of innocence, a common theme in Darger’s work and in his over 15,000 page opus. Throughout this work on paper, though, nature is the protector of the young girls, evidenced by the bent trees crushing some of the soldiers or creating a barrier for the children to escape capture.
Created between 1940 and 1950 an untitled work made with watercolor, carbon transfer, collage, and pencil on pierced paper is a scene of incredible violence with children hanging from branches with severed limbs and dripping blood. As with most of Darger’s work, it is hard to not imagine what was passing through his mind creating such scenes as his love of children and innocence were so central to him.
As a child, Darger was sent to the Asylum for Feeble Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois after his parents died and this fact gives color to the brutality in the visual narratives. This asylum’s reputation was documented by many children as an institution rife with abuse. In Darger’s autobiography, he also discusses the abuse that plagued him while he was at the asylum, a place that seems itself to be a manifestation of cruelty. This cruelty compelled a young Darger to try to run away several times, and he eventually was successful in escaping and made it back to Chicago where he would live out the rest of his life. He worked in a hospital in the city as a dishwasher, a bandage roller, and a janitor. These horrific childhood experiences points to how his creative process potentially helped him to grapple with emotional and psychological trauma from his difficult childhood and to work toward a healing.
The undated work Untitled that sits in the main gallery as stated above is a lush introduction to Darger and the world he created in his works. This two-sided, large panoramic work of collage and watercolor on paper depicts intense moments of violence while symbols of hope hover around the frame and the corners. A central figure on one side is a girl with wings adorned in the American flag. She looks to be coming from above, as if from a heaven, to rescue the children from the evil soldiers who pursue them. Then in the bottom right, a girl who looks very much like the angelic figure is saying, “They beat me to it. I can do better with my wing then Blackey Rooney does with her hands.” A haunting and intriguing description provided by Darger.
His visual works sprung from In the Realms of the Unreal as these were intended as illustrations for the book, a project he started after returning from serving in World War I. The book and therefore the illustrations follow the Vivian Girls who were a small army of seven girls scaling the country sides to save child slaves from the evil figures that are almost exclusively depicted as soldiers, many times with ghostly and evil faces.
Colonel Jack F. Evans though, depicts a brightly-uniformed young solider and it exudes a positivity and hopefulness the dark soldiers in the large-scale works do not depict. This soldier is thus portrayed since he is the guardian of the Vivian Girls and therefore very important and almost god-like to Darger. Behind the illustration, a biography of the colonel sits in Darger’s lithe scrawl making this work more graphic than most of the works in his repertoire.
The other artists in the exhibition, particularly Adolf Wölfli, had troubled childhoods, however different they may have been. For Wölfli, he was physically and sexually abused as a child, later leading to a psychosis that resulted in arrests for child molestation and eventually his admission into Bern’s Waldau Clinic. His works speak with Darger’s most poignantly in the front gallery in their obsessively-rendered mosaic drawings that often conjured images of stained glass windows of surreal saints and symbols of another world. He and Darger’s worlds have a fascinating dialogue in the exhibition and that visual discussion is worth listening in on while viewing Unreal Realms.
In addition to these works, the back gallery displays enlarged excerpts from the novel as well as more works by Darger and the Remington typewriter used by Darger. Henry Darger: Author / Artist is located in the back gallery and is a solid archive of his work while showcasing his reclusive personality and prolific today of work. On his death bed, Darger instructed his landlady to throw everything in his apartment out, but luckily she saw value in the works and the ephemera that filled his living space and saved much of it. Her foresight in holding on to these objects and works brought this solitary man and his incredible imagination into the light, resulting a never-ending interest in the mystery that he fully occupied. This mystery continues to attract new audiences to Darger’s work.
Exhibitions and events will be happening throughout the year to celebrate Henry Darger’s 125th birthday including a talk by Edward Gómez on Saturday, March 18th at 2 p.m. titled, “Investigating Unreal Realms.”
The exhibition is on view through March 26th at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art located at 756 North Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.