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 severely retarded. Darger’s diagnosis: masturbation.

The circumstances of Darger’s life, combined with the deeply eccentric and obsessively intense nature of his work, stir the viewer’s desire to play an Oprah-like art therapist/theorist, to take on the role of the friendly forensic psychologist and construct a psycho-profile, a character sketch, cracking the case, and answering the (potentially reductive) questions—is his absent sister the root of Darger’s fascination with little girls? Darger collected hundreds, perhaps thousands of images of girls from magazine ads, comics, newspapers, and coloring books. Was he conjuring something lost, adopting, kidnapping, or simply appropriating a symbol or icon of his sister and an idyllic (denied) childhood? Is the extreme violence inflicted on young girls the product of Darger’s sublimated anger? After all, his sister killed his mother.

At seventeen, four years after his father’s death, Darger escaped from the asylum and made his way back to Chicago. He got a menial job and a room to live in and around 1910 began work on an illustrated novel, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, otherwise known as The Realms of the Unreal, the longest novel ever written; 15,145 legal-sized pages bound into fifteen volumes—only brief passages have been published. An adventure beyond epic proportions that depicts a fantastical paradise populated by good girls, bad guys and Blengins—winged serpents with excellent vision who see trouble coming from miles off and have a mother-hennish protective impulse towards children. Sexual signifiers thousands of feet long and/or high, Blengins feature colorful plumage, lusciously patterned wings, long tails and lancelike tongues that pierce little girls, shooting a fluid into them they apparently like—it can make them immortal.

The novel charts a raging four-and-a-half-year battle to make the world safe for little girls, incorporating Darger’s struggles with a god he sometimes didn’t understand—he attended as many as five Catholic masses a day. It is a story with violence of mythic, near biblical scale. Passionately detailed scenes depicting the torture and massacre of millions of girls can go on for pages and pages. It is a world where female and male morph into a curious, confusing swirl of sexuality/gender—the girl slaves are always naked and have small penises. (Did Darger not know male from female? Was the absence of the penis so threatening that it had to be corrected?) It is too easy to casually speculate about Darger’s psychosexual makeup, but whatever the particulars of his early life, In the Realms of the Unreal is the document of Darger’s struggle to survive—it is where he both lost and found himself. His heroines are the seven (sometimes eight) Vivian Sisters (a clipping of the Dionne quintuplets was found in his room), plucky young Christians, blonde, perfect, pure, and dressed identically (unlike the girl courage, enormous intelligence and resilience—oh, and they’re immortal too, thanks to the Blengin prick.

The recent retrospective at the Museum of American Folk Art featuring a selection of sixty-three paintings (The Realms contains over 300 illustrations) offers a fascinating introduction to a man who probably never thought of himself as a writer/artist—in Darger’s 5,000-page autobiography, The History of My Life, little mention is made of his writing or painting. Darger’s typewriter was included in the exhibit though none of the books were—his writings include a sequel to The Realms known as The Vivian Girls in Chicago, and numerous journals, one devoted entirely to weather. Apparently, when people attempted to engage Darger in conversation, he would talk only about the weather. And in his work, emotion is communicated through weather—storms often chase the girls and there is always the threat of an act of god, natural disaster, the elements slipping out of control. Darger’s external life was so small, so unobtrusive (did he fear being sent back to the institution?) that it gave no clue as to the enormity of his inner/other life. It was only shortly before his death that his landlord, photographer Nathan Lerner, discovered the books and paintings while weeding through the junk-filled room (during the twenty-four years Darger lived there, he collected everything from Pepto-Bismol bottles to bits of twine). Darger’s bed was so piled up with stuff, he’d taken to sleeping upright in a chair. In 1972, at eighty, unable to climb the stairs, he asked Lerner to take him to a Catholic nursing home, Little Sisters of the Poor. He died six months later.

One can link Darger’s novel to a literary tradition that frames it as a children’s adventure story gone awry—think of the fantastic magic of Frank Baum’s Oz stories (Darger owned first editions of Baum’s books), the creatures of Dr. Seuss, the dark danger of Grimm’s fairy tales, the weirdness of Alice in Wonderland, the otherworldly guardians of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, of monsters, time travel, and plucky young girls.

“In their sleep which lasted only a few hours without interruption, they had a long and beautiful dream. This was the dream. They had been put into a very large cell, where they wandered around for a very long while, when finally they grew very tired, and sat down on the hard stone floor, just ready to cry, when all at once, a dear child of unearthly beauty, appeared before them, and asked what was the trouble, and why they were about to cry. So they told the celestial child all about it, and she said, ‘Never you mind, we will all take good care of you. Don’t be afraid. There is a golden carriage waiting in the street for you. I’ll take you to it, and then I’ll go on ahead, and see that supper is ready.’”— writes Darger in volume three of the The Realms.

Looking at Darger’s soldiers—George Washington, Daniel Boone and other historic figures appear in several of the works—it’s possible to picture a small boy playing with toys, knocking one against another, bang, bang you’re dead. The grotesque details recall the stories children tell vying to gross each other out—the playground chant “great green globs of Breezy grimy gophers guts . . . .” And the passages of outrageous violence conjure the characters of Saturday morning cartoons escaping just as a big spinning saw is about to slice them in half.

“The wretches tugged violently and furiously at her arms, they pulled with all their might, they tore her clothes till she was completely naked, they showered blows upon her, cursed her, strangled her, pulled out her tongue, hair, and eyelashes, and kicked her in the stomach and struck her in the face and jaw with their fists, and pulled out her hair, and tortured her most horribly, but those delicate arms did not move,” Darger writes in volume nine, describing “The Death of the Child Martyr, Little Jennie Anges.”

One way to address the power of Darger’s work is by imagining the intensity of a child’s feelings exponentially expanded to full (adult) size. But the viewer is also inevitably aware of the possibility that these same disturbing gestures might mark the obsessive qualities of a serial killer, of a Jeffrey Dahmer, of a pedophile (in the girls one can see the blank face of Jon-Benet Ramsey), of a man consumed by conflict. All of it raising the unanswerable question: was Darger a protector of children or a pervert?

At some point during the writing of The Realms, Darger began to make art, first by altering existing images, replacing captions on clippings with his own writing and then by painting over illustrations. He developed a technique of tracing images and copying them into his paintings (in the transfer process, little girls would lose their clothing, simultaneously becoming more innocent and peculiarly sexualized; the penis would be added). Working with children’s watercolor paints on sheets of newsprint glued into twelve-foot panels painted on both sides, Darger combined the appropriated images with elements of collage to construct narratives. The density and pained lyricism of his allegorical landscapes, rich greens, inky blacks, recall the dainty determination of Japanese scrolls. At some point—probably in the 1940s—Darger was able, through his local drugstore, to have negatives and prints made of his clippings, which enabled him to experiment with scale and repetition, and to build an image library. (Original envelopes from the drugstore were found in Darger’s room, each one labeled identifying his use for the image inside, e.g. Vivian Girl Running, etc.)

In Flowers and Girls in Polka Dots the stamplike repetition of appropriated figures brings to mind the work of Lichtenstein and Warhol. There is a Pop-ish quality to many of the illustrations—some of the Blengin Girl serpents are reminiscent of ’60s record album colors. The strongest and most disconcerting of the works have an oddly linticular quality, shifting in a blink from fuzzy/familiar to menacing/mean. The ability to contain such ambivalence on a single sheet of newsprint is testament to Darger’s complex, peculiar sophistication. On a technical level, Darger’s did amazing things pushing the cruddy quality of kiddie watercolor to dazzling heights. There’s fineness to his handling of the paint—twelve-foot color washes without streaks, a depth of coloration that transcends the quality of his materials—evidencing genuine mastery of the medium. Throughout, the calm colors of childhood escalate to the hyperviligant, nearly psychedelic hues of an anxiety attack—you get the sensation that despite the familiarity of the figures and scenes, there is no safety here—there’s always a girl looking worried, a girl running. Darger dips deep into the primal pit of childhood, blending the collective fantasy of the childhood desired with the reality of the childhood denied or damaged.

Currently there’s a fixation on the preservation and revisitation of childhood—reclaiming lost memory, finding one’s inner child—as though one can strip oneself down to an essential self, the self one was before things went wrong. It is in relation to childhood that Darger’s work is most frighteningly contemporary. (Think Sue Williams, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelly, Nicole Eisenman, Paul McCarthy, etc.) The contrast between these artists’ explorations and Darger’s is that the “known” or “of the art world” artists exert great effort to unknow what has already been learned—there’s a sometimes campy self-consciousness to the work that is entirely absent in Darger’s. His is an unshelled imagination, along the lines of an anthropological find, mind-boggling, brilliant, and frightening for its nearly toxic purity. (It seems important to remember that this work was not produced for anyone to see, to analyze or contextualize—we are intruders here. Questions of whether the work is insider/outsider are almost irrelevant—if I had to, I’d call it inside-out.) To enter this disquieting universe is to dig deep into a man and witness the unfettered articulation of his imagination. In the end, it’s just you and Henry Darger.

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