PRINT May 1997


The world is at war. The Glandelinians—atheists, military men in ornate uniforms armed with rifles and bayonets—are battling the Christian Angelinneans, enslaving little girls, nailing them to crosses, burning them, strangling them, dismembering and eviscerating them in bloody scenes of murderous mayhem.
The world is at peace. A large playroom is filled with cookie-cutter children, appropriated from coloring books, almost all of them girls, engaged in a variety of activities. They are naive, wide-eyed, if a little blank. On the rear walls of the playroom are paintings—of the children at play, a girl on a tricycle, a witch and a pumpkin, a boy playing the harmonica while his dog howls along. The room is suffused with the energized ether of childhood, the odd hues of pastels pushed to extremes: bright reds, yellows, and violets, and an elusive, recurring green (a variation on the institutional greens and blues that used to be considered calming?). There is a comforting familiarity to the scene, a hopeful sense of the promise and safety of childhood, and yet something is not quite right. There is an inescapable and odd sensation of anxiety. One of the little girls is holding up a sign—“Don’t Worry we Blengins will help you escape.”

This is The Unreality of Being, the world of Henry Darger. Born in Chicago in 1892, Darger was almost four when his mother died after giving birth to a sister, who was believed to have been put up for adoption. Darger lived with his father until he was eight and then was sent to a Catholic home—The Mission of Our Lady of Mercy. He continued to attend public school, where he was a good student (a civil war aficionado), but had some difficulties: he made strange noises, among other things. A reference, perhaps an explanation, appears as text in one of Darger’s paintings: “The Vivian girls seek refuge in a cave and scare the Glandelinians by making noises.” Around 1902, Darger was removed to the Lincoln Asylum, a nightmarish facility (picture a Charles Dickens novel, all drool and deformity, or a Fred Wiseman documentary), housing 1500 children ranging from the emotionally disturbed to the

to keep reading

Artforum print subscribers have full access to this article. Please sign in below.

Not registered for Register here.

SUBSCRIBE NOW and save up to 65% off the newsstand price for full online access to this issue and our archive.

Order the ONLINE EDITION for $5.99.

* This rate applies to U.S. domestic subscriptions.