Henry Darger: Highlights from the American Folk Art Museum
August 19 – October 29, 2006
Henry Darger (1892–1973) was a self-taught reclusive artist who created and inhabited an imaginary world through extensive writings, paintings, and drawings. After Darger’s death, his Chicago neighbor and landlord discovered and made public Darger’s previously unknown volume of work.
This solitary artist left behind several diaries and manuscripts including a six-part weather journal, an autobiography in eight volumes, and his 15,000-page illustrated epic, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal. Accompanied by watercolor paintings and collages, the novel focuses on a band of girls’ heroic efforts to free enslaved children held captive by an army of adults. The novel and its illustrations are whimsical and sinister in their depiction of war and peace and good versus evil.
Drawn from the American Folk Art Museum’s Henry Darger Collection, this traveling exhibition includes twenty paintings, drawings, and tracings by the artist, source materials—including newspaper clippings, magazines, comic books, cartoons, and coloring books—and Darger’s personal documents and other ephemera. One bound volume of the original typewritten manuscript for In the Realms of the Unreal will also be exhibited.
Henry Darger is best known for his illustrated epic about a world torn apart by war: 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.
In the Realms of the Unreal is the tale of seven little girls— the Vivian Girls—who set out to rescue abducted children enslaved by the adult Glandelinians. The heroes are always children, and the villains are adults. Begun when Darger was about nineteen years old, this story of war and peace and good versus evil loosely parallels events of the American Civil War (1861–65). In the artist’s version, the enslaved people are white children who often appear unclothed, with vulnerability emphasized by youth, innocence, and nakedness. The children’s nudity also reveals their mixed gender, a compelling aspect of Darger’s imagery that is open to many interpretations. Though death and destruction pervade throughout the epic, the Vivian Girls ultimately prevail: good triumphs over evil, and the children are freed from their captors.
Darger drafted his story in longhand, then typed it (both versions are in the American Folk Art Museum’s collection). He then added illustrations, teaching himself drawing, painting, and collage techniques in his rented room.
To accompany his narrative, Darger created several hundred scroll-like paintings over several decades; the work remains undated, leaving uncertainties about the length of Darger’s artistic career. As Darger matured as a painter and colorist, his paintings grew, with sophisticated compositions often more than nine feet long, many of which are double-sided. Each painting possesses an overwhelming individual presence.
Darger was also a capable and willful draftsman who experimented with techniques to attain desired effects. To achieve his vision, he invented techniques involving collage and appropriation from popular media; as he felt he couldn’t master freehand human figure drawing, Darger freely and unapologetically commandeered images from other places. He traced images from magazines, comic books, and other print sources he collected. He even used photocopied and resized poses from popular media. Sometimes he simply pasted reproductions directly onto his watercolor paintings.
The Working Artist
Darger’s archive includes the full breadth of his source material: his personal collection of books and thousands of media clippings. The subject matter is common to many of Darger’s paintings: girls, clouds, landscapes, plants, weather, war, and disasters. Evidencing Darger’s obsessive nature are hundreds of clippings featuring the same subject. The myriad clippings also point out how Darger’s paintings reflect American popular culture. His once mysterious Blengins, for instance, have predecessors in an ice cream advertisement showing a winged troll stirring a vat of cream, and a phallic-winged creature first appeared in the comic strip “Mandrake the Magician.” Darger’s large flowers and palm trees echo numerous print advertisements as well.
The archive also includes more than one hundred negatives and photo enlargements, which further illustrate Darger’s working method, and more than five hundred pen and pencil sketches and studies. Ranging from a few square inches to twenty by twenty-four inches and executed on tracing, typing, wax, and drawing paper, these delicate and sensitive studies correct the commonly held misconception that Darger was not an able draftsman.
Henry Darger: Highlights from the American Folk Art Museum is organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York.