New York

Henry Darger

Henry Darger might seem the epitome of the outsider artist, a loner-next-door type who spent endless hours in his dilapidated house, creating a strange and brilliant masterwork that would only be discovered after his death in 1973: hundreds of illustrations and more than fifteen thousand densely typed pages of narration depicting the sagas of the “Realms of the Unreal,” in which brave and beautiful prepubescent girls are enslaved by a band of craven elders, the Glandelinians, led by the evil Glandelinian general, John Manley.

Yet Darger’s work itself points up the limits of his ostensible categorization. More than most obscure talents, he bears comparison with hermetic visionaries including William Blake and Franz Kafka, or even the mystics of the Middle Ages (an association which may have especially pleased or embarrassed the artist, a daily attendee of Catholic Mass). This status is confirmed by the large and meticulously detailed multimedia collage that bears the words THE BATTLE OF CALVERHINE, circa 1929, which for decades hung in the artist’s ramshackle living room/studio, and which was displayed here for the first time in the US. The work represents a singular departure from his usual style, here exemplified by two panoramic double-sided paintings in which Darger’s heroines, the Vivians, loll around in gently fantastical, bright watercolor meadows.

The collage’s thick, crumpled texture and brackish, blood- and mud-colored shellacked surface, along with the detailed ferocity of the Armageddon depicted, make for a nightmarish combination. One must get close to the work, as if entering hell, to discern arrays of clashing Civil War–era troops, or the plaintive tableau of wounded and dead in the lower foreground. In articulating his excruciatingly kinetic vision, the younger Darger seems to have drawn on every technique at his disposal in order to better depict the fury of battles both physical and psychological.

Some have discerned a pedophilic aspect to Darger’s work (one of his favorite models for his signature heroines is the famous Coppertone girl). One biographer even suggests (irresponsibly, others counter) that Darger, who throughout his life expressed great concern and sympathy for children, may have strangled a little girl. While the work’s alternation between sensual and gruesomely violent depictions of children inevitably suggests certain unwholesome possibilities, there’s little evidence that the artist significantly augmented the coquettishness inherent in the coloring-book and advertising images of the little girls he copied or pasted into his work.

Nevertheless, that ours is a culture that increasingly sexually objectifies the very young is an unsettling fact haunting any appreciation of Darger, especially the grimmer passages of his epic project. Works such as the circa-1950s one in which the phrase THE PHELANTONBERG, WHAT THEY SAW appears, and in which creepy adults wearing mortarboards or witches’ hats strangle helpless Vivians, recall the artwork of abused children themselves. In his art at least, Darger’s dedication to his subjects deflects ultimate suspicion of prurience. If we consider the incendiary mixture of sexual violence, commodification, and repression manifest in our culture, culminating in the torture at Abu Ghraib, we may find, as is typical with visionaries, that the strange world Darger illuminates is the one before our eyes. In any case, the ambiguity surrounding his art, however sinister, is part of its gravity. More than any one example of his art, or the often astonishing elements of his style, it’s Darger’s grand theme of imperiled innocence and his devout treatments of it that are so compelling—if eerily familiar. We return to him as we do to the mystics—for a sense of the person and of the vision, however unknowable it turns out to have been, that sustained them.

Tom Breidenbach