Henry Darger - Protector of Children, Destroyer of Worlds: The most important artist we almost never had

John M. MacGregor, Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal (Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002)

Brooke Davis Anderson, with an essay by Michael Thevoz, Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum (American Folk Art Museum and Harry N. Abrams, 2001)

"Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal is a generously illustrated book that represents the culmination of more than a decade of research into the enigmatic artist's life and work by world renowned outsider art expert John MacGregor. The long awaited monograph is MacGregor’s first English-language publication on Henry Darger and the most comprehensive critical investigation of Darger’s writings and illustrations available in any language.
Henry Darger was born in Chicago in 1892. Shortly before his death in 1973, his landlord, Chicago artist Nathan Lerner, made a startling discovery in his tenant’s room: the history of another world in fifteen volumes, In the Realms of the Unreal—at 15,145 type-written pages, possibly the longest work of fiction ever written. In startlingly vivid detail, Darger’s Realms recounted the role of seven sisters, known as the Vivian Girls, in a violent conflict over child enslavement on an unnamed planet. Amidst the refuse, Lerner also found three huge bound volumes of brightly colored illustrations for the work, many painted on both sides and some over twelve feet in length. In the decades since his death, Darger’s alternate universe has attracted the intense interest of collectors, critics, and scholars around the world. His illustrations and writings have been the subject of major museum exhibitions in Europe and North America."

"Henry Darger is doubtless the world's most celebrated lifelong menial laborer, having worked diligently not only as a janitor, but also in later life as a dishwasher and (finally) a winder of gauze bandages. Darger was truly a man of several careers, and John MacGregor's In the Realms of the Unreal represents a definitive, 10-year, 720-page critical study of his life and work. MacGregor's first chapter is gamely called "On the Autobiography of a Dishwasher," a nod to the fact that nobody in the Chicago hospitals in which Darger worked, nor perhaps in his entire life, would ever have believed he would be remembered, let alone lionized, now, 30 years after his death. Darger was a fireplug of a man, mentally ill in the unspecifiable way of the self-muttering recluse, and his fame comes from what was discovered during the cleaning out of the room he inhabited for 40 years, once he finally left its solitude, at 81, for a charity-ward deathbed.
Darger's landlord, Nathan Lerner, was an art-world figure with Bauhaus ties who tolerated Darger with a certain bohemian noblesse - forgiving lapses in rent, ignoring strange behavior and strange noises, and even (if perhaps a bit ironically) throwing all-tenant birthday parties for him. But failing health finally forced the old man to move out in late 1972 (he died in early 1973), and when they opened up his close-smelling rooms and walked the narrow footpaths that wound from door to bed to bathroom through a ceiling-high mountain of clutter, they found the skulls and tibiae of several little girls, polished as though by long fondling.
Actually, no. But we'll get back to that. They found hundreds of paintings and collages that are now scattered among the world's museums, and the longest single piece of writing ever known: "In the Realms of the Unreal," a labyrinthine novel of more than 15,000 closely spaced pages for which the paintings serve as illustrations. Also an incomplete 8,000-page sequel, illustrated, and many thousands of pages of other writings - including a gargantuan autobiography recounting Darger's troubled and institutionalized youth and his 53-year career as a laborer. In the latter (and this part is crucial and strange), the sole mention that he had any creative leanings at all comes in a passage in which he's complaining about the chronic joint pain that plagued him in later life:
"To make matters worse now I'm an artist, been one for years, and cannot hardly stand on my feet because of my knee to paint on the top of the long picture."
That's the only time it ever comes up, and Darger, who had no known family, apparently never said a word about his colossal creative output to any of his fellow tenants or co-workers. MacGregor's book makes it clear that like all "outsider art," Darger's writings and artworks were an encompassing private world to him, one which the tired dishwasher began to inhabit as soon as he arrived home from one of his 14-hour shifts and sat down at the typewriter or work table. He obsessively built it around himself, night after night, by the acts of writing and painting. And apparently the public Darger and the private one had very little in common - and very little to say to (or about) each other. Their worlds didn't connect.
Darger's private world centered around seven little blond moppets called the Vivian Girls, whose adventures include... But it's a 23,000-page story, and while of course I always read every relevant source in the course of writing a review - and boy, was this one a doozy - it's a bit involuted to go into in much detail. Actually, not even MacGregor has read more than a representative fraction of Darger's writing, and it's safe to say that nobody ever will. MacGregor's book and Michael Bonesteel's Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings are the only places in which significant amounts of Darger's prose are available in English, and it might come as a surprise that Darger, despite being a mentally ill laborer with a grade-school education, was actually better than many of the pulp writers working during his formative creative years ("Realms of the Unreal" was begun sometime after around 1910, when Darger was a very young man; he seems to have finished the first volume around 1932), at least in terms of sentences and paragraphs. (It can otherwise be said that his work would not have been weakened by a greater commitment toward concision.) An outstanding passage:
"He paused for a moment, many recollections overpowering him. He seemed to have unlocked the casket of his heart, closed for so many hours, as if all the memories of the past and all the secrets of his heart and life were rushing out, glad to be free once more and grateful for the open air of sympathy."
But basically the Vivian Girls are seven perfect, radiantly attractive, largely indistinguishable little girls who get into all sorts of children's-book adventures, often without any clothes on, during a war between their noble and Roman Catholic land of Angelinia and an evil empire of child slavery and child hatred called Glandelinia.
It's a nearly sexless story in the conventional sense (there's lots of hugging and kissing), but a ferociously bloody one, in which literally millions of little girls are tortured, strangled or otherwise killed and/or disemboweled in graphic detail, by the evil Glandelinians. Hundreds of millions of children and adults are destroyed by fire, flood, warfare, tornado, massive explosions and anything else you can think of. There are tens of thousands of named characters who sometimes switch names and identities and often have doppelgängers fighting on the other side of the war. Darger himself appears in many guises, with many variant names, including as a "protector of children" and as a Glandelinian murderer.
If there's a center around which the narrative revolves, it's the so-called Aronburg Mystery, the incident that Darger writes was responsible for beginning this cycle of war and catastrophe. It was the unsolved theft of a coveted newspaper photograph of Annie Aronburg, a murdered little girl. As MacGregor shows, such an event happened to Darger in real life, and caused him enormous, lifelong anxiety.
That's a brief redux apropos the "skulls" thing before, for there's been a huge controversy whirling through the art world over whether Darger was basically just a crabby mentally disturbed gentleman (which would be good for sales of Darger's work), or was, as MacGregor once famously said, "psychologically a serial killer" (rather likely from the book's description of his childhood violence and pyromania and other warning signs, but hotly contested by gallerists) - and if the latter, whether he really did molest or murder anyone (MacGregor seems to have wussed out on researching that too deeply, but you really have to wonder). The real-life photo in question was of Elsie Paroubek, age 5, who disappeared in Chicago in April 1911, when Darger, at 19, had recently returned to the city from the mental asylum in which he spent most of his youth. Paroubek was later found strangled in a drainage ditch. Apparently, her photo and a notebook of early writings were stolen from Darger's belongings at a time when he lived dormitory-style with other hospital workers.
We haven't even touched on the art yet. To sum up an oeuvre of hundreds of illustrations, scores of which are reproduced here: The naked Vivian Girls, and all female children, are generally depicted with little-boy penises, although this interesting detail seems never to be mentioned or explained in Darger's text. Darger couldn't draw, and usually didn't try, instead tracing, arranging and coloring images clipped from magazines. His compositional gifts and skill as a colorist approached genius. Many of his paintings are rather charming and even childlike, while some are tableaux of tortures, massacres and mutilated bodies.
It's an incredibly complex and puzzling body of work, more so because of the rather few key elements it contains, repeated in practically infinite combinations: little girls with penises frolicking or carrying weapons; pastoral and military scenes; little girls being choked and disemboweled. What it all meant to Darger, we'll never fully know, although MacGregor seems to have the core principle nailed down firmly when he says that the artist never outgrew his childhood, never developed adult feelings or desires, and suffered a bitter conflict between his angelic, or "Angelinian," side and his glandular, or "Glandelinian," one.
MacGregor is an art historian who specializes in outsider art and is one of the last of the old-time Freudians (he studied with Anna Freud). His analyses of Darger's art and psyche draw heavily from the Freudian tool kit, and have a lot to do with repression and early-childhood trauma. It's highly convincing, although it seems to leave a few holes in things. Darger, at age 4, had a sister who was put up for adoption after his mother died in childbirth, and MacGregor identifies this as the signal event of Darger's life, upon which all his subsequent neuroses and crazinesses accreted. However, the possibility that his parents were assholes is not explored (it seems likely). Apropos the girl-penises, MacGregor writes that Darger might not even have known there was a difference between the male and the female anatomy. That seems pretty hard to credit, given that the young Darger grew up in a rough Chicago neighborhood and later worked summers on a farm.
Despite the incredible depth of MacGregor's research (and it is incredible), he's apparently known in the art-history field as a bit of a character, and he jokes about having picked up some of Darger's creative habits during the 10 years he researched his subject. (He wrote much of it sitting alone in Darger's own room, occasionally talking to the absent artist.) It's true: His work would not have been weakened by a greater commitment toward concision.
The book's text is also organized a bit like Darger's writing, which is to say, you rarely get everything in a straight line. If Darger's prose is liable to start in one place, meander up and down the hall for a while and then run around the block whooping for several hundred pages (literally) before circling back as though nothing had happened, MacGregor's only goes around the block for a page-column or two at a time. That doesn't at all keep "In the Realms of the Unknown" from being an engrossing read, although it's hard to get a synthesis on Darger and his work when you have to keep skipping back and forth through 720 pages, trying to clear up details that aren't where you'd think they'd be -- names and dates, context, chronologies. The index is sparse and somewhat crude, as though the indexing person got a migraine and gave up. It's a book that demands to be read either hard and thoroughly, or several times at leisure.
So, the tough question: Did Darger ever kill anyone? The answer is, we'll probably never know. Darger's ex-landlords, the late Nathan Lerner and his widow Kiyoko, seem to have managed the Darger estate in such a way that nobody who wants access to their material is allowed to ask the wrong questions, or to give the wrong answers, and MacGregor seems to have acceded to all their wishes. Eyewitness accounts have differed over whether Darger gave them his work or asked that it be thrown out - MacGregor doesn't address the issue of ownership.
After Darger's death, the Lerners cut apart his self-bound volumes of artwork, scrambling their context as illustrations, in order to sell the pieces individually. MacGregor notes this in passing, in the passive voice, as though nobody in particular had done the cutting. And the cataloguing of the Darger work that was sold seems to have been so lax that nobody knows what paintings might've ended up where. MacGregor doesn't address that either.
Researchers, including MacGregor, have had to agree not to look for any surviving relatives of Darger's, who might possibly claim the estate. MacGregor didn't look for any -- including the lost sister. And most signally, the research on Elsie Paroubek, and on other children who might have disappeared in and around Chicago during Darger's time there, stopped when the police records on the Paroubek case couldn't be found. MacGregor gives no details on the case, which was elaborately reported in the Chicago Daily News; gives no possible scenarios; describes no other leads or competing bits of evidence; and doesn't show that he ever sifted Darger's writings in a prosecutorial frame of mind. If you were MacGregor, wouldn't you be curious? Hmm.
MacGregor does, however, begin his volume with this inscription, which precedes an introduction by Nathan Lerner - suggesting that inner conflict is among the habits of Darger's he picked up during his 10-year immersion in his life and work:
All the Gold in the Gold mines
All the Silver in the world,
Nay, all the world,
Cannot buy these pictures from me,
Vengeance, thee {terrible} vengeance
On those who steals or destroys them.
- Henry J. Darger
Hmmm." - Gavin McNett
"It is testimony to Henry Darger's isolation that his most extended intimacy with another human being probably happened after he was dead. We now have the fruit of that intimacy: John MacGregor's authoritative 720-page study Henry Darger In the Realms of the Unreal.
A Canadian art historian and psychotherapist who made his name with his 1989 book The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, MacGregor spent a dozen years wrapped up in Darger's voluminous writings and art - and in his actual living space, on Webster Avenue in Chicago. His fascination with Darger and awe at his genius obviously kept him engaged, but also fed his unease at Darger's weirdness. While raw artistic talent made Darger's work magnificent, his life, its troubles and eccentricities, made what he did with his talent problematic. On the one side is beauty. On the other is not just odd behavior but abject horror.
Darger's pictorial accomplishments, which mix delicate innocence with extreme violence, have been widely known for years. Now, with this book and Michael Bonesteel's Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, his written work is finally gaining similar exposure. The texts provide important context for the pictures while representing an immense achievement in their own right - physically, in their thousands of pages, and intellectually, in their originality.
MacGregor presents the writing in small doses via numerous excerpts, making them somewhat more approachable than the longer passages in the Bonesteel book. Both books demonstrate that Darger's writing, though not as immediately appealing as his pictures, contains the same flashes of creative fire. Even with his unpolished grammar and often-childlike descriptions, Darger displays great clarity and invention.
"Only now, after he is gone, is the richness of his being unfolding in the world, in ways and to an extent he could never have imagined -- and never desired," MacGregor writes. The recent publication of not two but three books, also including Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum, is the ultimate revenge of "Crazy," as he was dubbed in his youth.
MacGregor ascribes a "near hallucinatory intensity" to Darger's creative process that could be taken to corroborate that label, but there also is a self-awareness and lucidity that may surprise those whose understanding of Darger pigeonholes him as an eccentric loner. Among other striking excerpts:
- He recognized himself. "To make matters worse now I'm an artist, been one for years...."
- He understood something of his own peculiarity. Here's how one of his Vivian girl heroines refers to his endlessly repeated images of little girls: "Probably he had them to use as company, as he was childless.... He must have been a very odd man."
- Subject to recurring rages, he comprehended their excessiveness. His diaries repeatedly describe struggles with temper tantrums, and in this quote from his magnum opus he refers to a devastatingly extended tantrum, over the loss of a treasured photo. His rage kept him from ending the great war that The Realms of the Unreal describes: "'The man must be a nut for how cold the loss of a picture be responsible for the disaster?'"
- Here is how he briefly but eloquently mourned a lost, and terribly deprived, childhood. "The tender secret influence that passed ... into him and other children could not rise again, no never." - He understood something of the nature of his devastated upbringing, and one can sense the reflections of a man who spent most of his youth institutionalized. In a paraphrase of the
- Declaration of Independence, he writes of children's right "to play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night's season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart."
- Finally, he mourned life itself, in the last entry in his diary before his 1973 death: "January 1, 1971. I had a very poor nothing like Christmas. Never had a good Christmas all my life, nor a good new year, and now.... I am very bitter but fortunately not revengeful, though I feel should be how I am...."
This all makes for poignant biography, and MacGregor draws a revealing portrait of Darger, especially when combined with close readings of his art and methods. The many years of research seem justified as his exploration of historical documents and interviews with those who knew Darger reveal both his intelligence and his painful difficulties coping with ordinary society. His obsession with the weather, for example, made it one of the few subjects that could engage Darger in conversation. But his daily weather diary shows how he could take an ordinary concern and turn it into something more monumental than most people with their casual assessments could ever imagine or want.
Personally isolated as he was, Darger was well versed in popular culture, especially the comic strips that were the source for much of his visual imagery. He read widely, as evidenced by both the books in his library and the citations in his writing. L. Frank Baum's Oz stories are a significant, and appropriate, influence. Characters from Oz, as well as Uncle Tom's Cabin, even show up in Darger's own fantasy realm. Add those to the Dickens he also read and strong resonances abound in his epic story of oppressed child slaves, their rebellion, repression and liberation.
Despite the biography's impressive detail, large gaps remain in what can be known about someone who remained so aggressively obscure in his lifetime. Much as Darger began writing an autobiography that spun out of control into a bizarre extended fantasy about a devastating tornado, MacGregor starts out grounded in Darger's life and art, but after the first hundred or so pages of solid biography he starts taking flight from the mere facts.
"In thinking about Henry's relationship to images, it is essential to lay aside all of our normal assumptions about 'art' and the creative process in the artist," he writes. That special pleading is a big warning flag. Along with the "normal assumptions," MacGregor abandons real engagement with Darger's creativity as a psychiatric frame of reference traps him in a vicious circle. The abnormality so evident in Darger's life and work begs for a psychiatric explanation. But once viewed through the lens of psychiatry, it becomes hard to see anything except more evidence of pathology, especially since the horrific content is easier to take as symptom than as art.
While stating that the brutal accounts of torture and massacres represent no more than 1 percent of Darger's text and illustrations and thus "should not be exaggerated," MacGregor proceeds to do exactly that. Faced with a case like this, it seems the psychiatrist cannot help but focus on its most pathological manifestations.
But although it took a disturbed personality to envision the graphic horrors Darger depicts, a Freudian focus on the erotic overwhelms MacGregor's struggle to comprehend the most difficult material. Darger might claim to be appalled at the violence he depicts; MacGregor mostly just sees sexual excitement.
When you get to the chapters discussing the most provocative elements in Darger's work -- the bepenised little girls and, especially, the mind-boggling gore -- you pretty much know what's going to come. But the psychiatric speculation has been layered too thick. Four small examples among many that sap the reader's interest:
-MacGregor identifies the horns, and the very bodies, of Darger's great Blengiglomenean serpents as - surprise - phallic, even though in many cases they seem instead phalangic.
-Disappointed that Darger did not name any of the Vivian Girl heroines after his mother, Rose, he suggests that "perhaps it is important that two of the children do have names derived from flowers."
- While recognizing the great creativity Darger brought to the tracing techniques that were the basis of his art, MacGregor finds Darger's very manipulation of traced images to be "sadistic" in its aggressiveness. This amounts to pathetic fallacy, with inanimate drawings made the victims of the artist's act of creation.
- Darger avoided sexual encounters because he feared an unknowing liaison with a sister given up for adoption shortly after her birth (a birth that also robbed Darger of his mother when he was four).
Darger's losses undoubtedly deeply structured his personality. His immense fantasy involvement with little girls seems clearly associated with the yearning for a lost sister. The death of his mother, not to mention his later institutionalization, had to have contributed to a deeply traumatized personality. Indeed, they supply plenty of context for his depicting the enslavement and torture of children without requiring implausible diagnoses.
But MacGregor seems driven to do exactly that, especially as he takes on the question of violence. Most disappointingly, he lards his book with sensational allusions to serial killers and, occasionally, arson. Although both in this book and elsewhere he is careful to disclaim actual allegation of crime, his most sustained argument is that Darger was a serial killer in effect if not fact. Darger was "posed on the edge of violent and irrational sadistic and murderous activity," he says. "Whether or not they were acted upon, these are the ongoing fantasies of a serial killer."
This claim is repeated again and again:
- MacGregor feels "obliged to move out beyond the norms of psychological explanation and experience, into the rarefied mental history of the serial killer."
- "I know of nothing in art to equal the defiant aesthetic of this monstrous vision, only in the psychopathology of the serial killer do we encounter such calm, such ordered madness."
-"From a psychological standpoint, the split-off 'Glandelinian' portion of Darger's psyche is arguably the mind of a serial killer made visible."
- "That Darger's sexual life, confined it would seem to fantasy, was characterized by extraordinarily violent sadistic drives cannot be doubted.... Nor do we know whether, at some point in his life, 'he joined with the Glandelinians,' acting on these impulses in reality."
- "The possibility that Darger committed the 1911 murder [of Elsie Paroubek, the basis for his Annie Aronburg character] should not be dismissed without examination." A lost newspaper photo of Paroubek is what sparked the rage at the heart of the unending war.
MacGregor goes so far as to say, in a footnote, that Darger's more "violent writings are ... of particular interest in making visible the psychological makeup of the serial killer, to a far greater degree than is possible through interviews with such rare individuals." More insight may be gained from studying someone who wasn't a serial killer? This is plain far-fetched, but it reflects the depth of MacGregor's distress at what he deems Darger's "lust, grown monstrous" and the disingenuous of his claims that he's not actually accusing Darger of anything.
It appears that the only factor preventing an outright murder conviction is MacGregor's belief that had Darger killed once, he would not have been able to stop himself from killing again. In that event, Darger would unlikely have devoted his prodigious psychic energies to his art and writing, nor is it likely that he would have remained at large.
A bigger problem than MacGregor's speculations is his focus. He defends his psychiatric approach with the argument that Darger's vast writings constitute diagnostic material as exhaustive as anything that could be provided by a living patient. But while Darger's biography (and psychobiography) may be interesting enough, and they do shed some light on his work, it's the work that really matters. To his credit MacGregor weaves Darger's own writings and pictures through his text, but his relentless psychologizing quickly ceases to illuminate Darger's breath-taking private world. Instead, they encase it, and the biography ends up obscuring the art, as happens so often with outsider artists.
MacGregor himself offers a far more interesting, and non-clinical, interpretation at the end of the book, leaving the reader wishing the previous 11 chapters had been similarly enlightening. "The Realms is an obsessional presentation of the reality of evil, an endlessly elaborated vision of hell on earth," he writes. "It was, in part, a desperate and terrible question addressed to a passive and silent God," a God in which Darger had absolute belief. As MacGregor describes it: "Where is God. Why does God allow these things to happen? How far can he be pushed before he will intervene?"
If Darger was attempting to outrage god into reacting, it makes sense that he would create the most awful scenes he could imagine - the gruesome, explicit torture of little girls that still outrages audiences today, whatever its effect on God. Retreating into psychiatry is the easy way out. It reduces Darger's most profound, if disturbing, imagery into its lowest possible denominator: psychopathology. Of course Darger could have been pathological AND extraordinarily sensitive to the problem of evil. But MacGregor's single-minded prosecution of Darger's lust-driven sadism does not mesh with the far more engaging, and ultimately convincing, portrait of a man at war with God.
MacGregor, in a moment of insight, puts it best himself: "Nothing in Darger's psychic content is either unique or inhuman. Everything we encounter in The Realms of the Unreal is also encountered in human history and in the human mind in extremis." As he notes, "the tortures Darger invents ... bear a striking resemblance to those used in the martyrdom of saints." More to the point, "pathological sadism and murderous rage" is a prominent characteristic of the century in which Darger was writing. It would be hard to minimize the effect of the horrible devastation in the Civil War just a few decades before Darger was born, the Great War that he had just lived through, and World War II, which was looming as he wrote his saga and which preceded much of his artwork. In the end, Darger's admittedly sadistic fantasies can be read as naďve (and naively inappropriate) attempts to capture the all-too-real horrors of the human condition as well as his immense rage at his own stunted life.
Because Darger happens to be weird, however, this content in his work constitutes a symptom rather than a subject. It is MacGregor himself who writes that "The tendency to engage in clinical reductionism ... could have seriously obscured for the reader Darger's astonishing uniqueness as a personality and an artist." He obviously believes he resisted that tendency by waiting some 650 pages before discussing a literal diagnosis (autism, specifically Asperger's Syndrome). But reductionism is present throughout the book and explicit in his own statements: "All of these narrative-constructs, however objective they may initially appear, are reflective of subjective psychological content, shifting moods and elemental drives." Or put another way, "The flow of content in Darger is controlled, not by the logic of the narrative, but by internal necessity."
Perhaps MacGregor was overwhelmed by Darger's massive work. The reader is "buried beneath an avalanche of overwhelmingly obsessive and oppressive detail," he writes. The reader of Henry Darger In the Realms of the Unreal may be forgiven a hint of the same feeling. It is testimony to the quality of MacGregor's scholarship that his reductionist psychology often contrasts with richer and more revealing insights about the man and his work. Despite that, and the pleasures afforded by the numerous reproductions, it is a chore to make it through this book. The lack of an effective editor is apparent from a text that is far too long and lazily argued to make its own case effectively.
An editor might also have toned down MacGregor's dubious hyperboles. References to uniqueness in the history of art and to the longest piece of imaginative prose ever written beg for rebuttal, since this book offers no proof that they are true. Yes Darger's output is singular, but so is any great work of art. And yes The Realms is long, but did MacGregor really survey world libraries and manuscript repositories before declaring it the longest ever (a claim already being repeated as fact by journalists whose highest authority is the first clipping they happen to see)? In the end the book reads something like a disillusioned spouse running through the flaws of their mate. You know there is a good deal of detailed truth underlying the claims, but you take the exaggerations and harsh judgments with a large grain of salt.
While this volume remains mandatory for anyone with a significant interest in Darger, those less ambitious have two good alternatives. Michael Bonesteel's book presents a more balanced if somewhat less detailed portrait of Darger and includes instructive extracts from The Realms, Darger's diary and other texts. Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum collects images from the museum's recently acquired authoritative Darger collection. Although some depict a mild level of violence, and nude little girls abound, the selection represents a relatively low-key cross-section of the work and includes a number of pictures not featured in the MacGregor book. An essay by Michel Thevoz mounts a brief but potent argument for why Darger matters, making this a decent starter package as well as a supplement to MacGregor's work." - interestingideas.com

"Any insight into the life and work of Henry Darger (1892-1973) must begin with two images, images that have become iconic in the study of outsider art. The first is a black and white photograph of Darger, taken near the end of the artist’s life by his neighbor, David Berglund. In the photo Darger sits on a flight of wooden steps, his shoulders stooped beneath a frayed jacket. His gaze is cast downwards and his eyes reveal the weariness of a life lived beyond its purpose. In his left hand he holds a pair of glasses, their heavy frames held together with a thick wrapping of black electrical tape. The second image, again a photograph by Berglund, is of Darger’s home: a cluttered room in the Chicago tenement where Darger spent the majority of his years in isolation, laboring over what has come to light as an incredibly unique and vastly influential grand opus of raw psychology.
The tragedy that would come to characterize Darger’s life began in early adolescence when, shortly after the death of his mother his younger sister was given up for adoption by their father. Suffering a shattered youth, Darger retreated into the role of a school yard bully whose fondness for starting fires eventually landed him in a home for wayward boys. Over the next few years the severity of his behavior increased until, in 1904, he was placed in the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children near Lincoln, Illinois. Throughout his five-year stay at the asylum, public allegations of abuse and misconduct on the part of staff doctors ran rampant in the local press (Bonesteel 2000:9). While Darger never spoke openly of his life there, it can be assumed that such an environment left a lasting scar on his psyche, not to mention his work to come. Fortunately, in 1909 he managed to escape to Chicago where he quickly found work as a janitor at St. Joseph’s Hospital, a job he would hold for the duration of his working life.
In 1917, living alone and supported by a salary that was modest at best, Darger began the process of reconstructing his shattered family by attempting to adopt a child. When his repeated efforts were met with an almost predictable string of rejections Darger’s desire for love and companionship began a decisive turn inwards. Still searching for the child to which he was denied in reality, a richly symbolic substitute was found in a newspaper clipping from the Chicago Daily News depicting the photograph of a five-year-old murder victim, Elsie Paroubek. Part of a growing personal archive of clippings gathered by Darger, there is no indication that the event or the subsequent article held any particular significance for him until he somehow misplaced it. Writing in his journal at the time, he begins to process this forfeiture of yet another family member, lamenting that “the huge disaster and calamity” of his loss “will never be atoned for,” but “shall be avenged to the uttermost limit” (Bonesteel 2000:10).
So begins Darger’s descent into the fantasy life that would sustain him for the next fifty years, ultimately producing one of the most involved creative endeavors ever executed: a fifteen thousand-page illustrated epic entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Recasting Elsie Paroubek as Annie Aronburg, the martyred leader of the eponymous slave rebellion, Darger himself is transformed into Captain Henry Darger, president of the “Children’s Protective Society,” sworn enemy “of all those who do the children any kind of harm” (Bonesteel 2000:12). Based loosely on the events of the Civil War, and incorporating biblical themes throughout, the story follows the trials of a race of children enslaved by adults who are led to freedom by the Vivian Sisters, nine girls with pure hearts and courage enough to stand up to the tyranny of their oppressors.
Strangely, the narrative is punctuated by frequent episodes of violence in which the author appears to revel in the details of the brutalities inflicted upon the children. Indulging at length in descriptions of strangulation, disembowlment and various scenes of torture, Darger’s work reveals certain sadistic tendencies at odds with his protective inclinations. This conflict is carried over into the vast body of illustrations accompanying Darger’s writing. Executed in crayon, pencil, and watercolor on horizontal scrolls of newsprint up to twenty feet long, Darger’s drawing are often populated with images of naked, cross-gendered children, bayonette-wielding soldiers and winged, serpent-like creatures. Adapted from tracings taken from a variety of salvaged sources, characters are frequently depicted against landscapes alternating between the Edenic and the apocalyptic: in panel after panel, lush foliage thriving beneath vibrant blue skies gives way to vast wastelands of scorched hillsides and dismembered corpses. In this world the artist is both creator and destroyer, capable of bringing about either heaven or hell according to his whims. At odds with both his reality and the deeply religious convictions that helped to shape it, Darger transforms himself through his work into a force of total control over a world of his making. “God is too hard to me,” he rages, “I will not bear it any longer... I’m my own man!” (McGregor 2002:23) His is a soul at war with itself, its battles waged within the tight walls of a one-room apartment.
The solitude of Darger’s life behind these walls was finally breached shortly before his death in 1973 when his landlord, the photographer Nathan Lerner was charged with organizing Darger’s belongings in preparation for Darger’s move to a nearby nursing home. Lerner and his wife Kiyoko had purchased the building in which Darger lived in 1955. As Darger kept to himself Lerner’s recorded recollections of their interactions tend to be peripheral, describing the old man as “odd at the very least, and maybe crazy” (MacGregor 2002:4). As the building’s caretakers the Lerners were permitted the occasional glimpse at the inside of Darger’s apartment and the work that filled it— exposure enough to recognize that something remarkable was taking place. However, only when Nathan Lerner and his assistant David Bergland began their work in the apartment after Darger’s move did the sheer magnitude of its contents come to light. Among the disarray and detritus of Darger’s belongings, the pair began to uncover scrapbooks filled with collage and drawings, as well as numerous volumes of writing, carefully typed, “bound [and] bundled, seemingly awaiting and audience” (Anderson 2001:11). In all, the tiny room yielded a six-volume illustrated weather journal containing ten years’ worth of daily entries, numerous personal diaries, a five-thousand page autobiography, the fifteen-thousand page Realms and its sequel, Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House, three handmade folios containing drawings measuring twelve feet long by two feet wide and a massive archive of proofs, test drawings and source material scrounged from sidewalks and garbage cans. Perplexed by their discovery, Lerner and Bergland asked Darger what he wanted done with his creations. “It’s too late now, throw it all away,” ” the old man reportedly replied,“ (MacGregor 2002:19).
One can only imagine the experience of finding such work buried deep within Darger’s apartment. John MacGregor, having devoted much of his career to the study of Darger and his work, captures the essence of the discovery when he “compare[s] the excavation of the chaotic contents of [the] room to an archaeological dig” (MacGregor 2002:9). Even more so, peering into Darger’s universe for the first time must have paralleled something akin to the first descent into the caves at Lascaux. Walking into the darkness of a place whose secrets have been hermetically protected from the outside world, what was revealed must have been entirely strange, yet completely compelling in its radiance. Imbued with a tangible tension between urges revealed and longings concealed, Darger’s creations continue to invite participation but refuse to disclose their primordial meanings. Fortunately, Lerner and Bergland recognized the immense value in what they found. Following Darger’s death on April 13, 1973, they set about the sorting of his possessions, carefully photographing his work in situ as they worked. Accepting their role as stewards of Darger’s legacy, the Lerners spent the next few years documenting and preserving his artwork and the great body of support material accompaning it.
In 1977, Darger’s illustrations made their public debut in a small exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center. In response to seeing his work for the first time, the art critic Jack Burnham proclaimed that “no European collection has a naive artist with the lyrical inventiveness of Henry Darger” (Bonesteel 2000:16). Indeed, by the time a traveling exhibit of Darger’s work was organized by the the Iowa Museum of Art in 1996, academics and eager collectors alike had begun to express an increasing interest in Darger’s vision.
Despite the difficulty of its subject matter, little girls depicted with penises and the violent treatment of children being obvious and often cited examples, the work has been included in both public and private collections, among them the Collection de l’Art Brut, the Musgrave Kinley Collection of Outsider Art at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and the Robert M. Greenberg Collection. In addition, the American Folk Art Museum in New York opened the Henry Darger Study Center in 2000, comprising the most comprehensive collection of Darger material to date. Made possible by a series of gifts and purchases, the Study Center’s holdings include the complete writings of the artist (over 30,000 pages), twenty-six large-scale illustrations, and an archive of Darger’s source materials. In keeping with the Center’s “key objective [of] making the artwork available to students, scholars, and people from the creative community,” access to the archives is granted for a variety of research projects, and ongoing thematic exhibitions of Darger’s work are displayed in the museum’s galleries (Anderson 2004:80). Given the sheer volume and immeasurable originality of Darger’s output, efforts to unravel and interpret his methods and intentions continues. Inspiring the engaged response of scholars and artists alike, Darger’s unique visions are invoked in literature, theater, and most recently, in the feature-length documentary by Jessica Yu, In the Realms of the Unreal: the Mystery of Henry Darger. " - Marcus Davies
"This is neither tawny, cobble-road delusion nor rabbit-holed excursion, and there's no moral at the end. Those are the gateways and postscripts which make adventures into the unknown a little more comfortable. They are the tenets of children's book folklore and, unfortunately, there is no clever transition into the otherworld of Outsider Artist Henry Darger; in fact, you aren't even invited. Last winter's Henry Darger retrospective at the Museum of American Folk Art was a monument to the most obsessively perverse act of genius swingin' under the big top.
My introduction to Outsider Art was through the virtue and great patience of a collector friend in Salt Lake City, Utah. Outsider Art is a blanket term used to imply unschooled artists whose particular dalliance or psychosis is a catalyst to brilliance. Salt Lake City, under the rule of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons, certainly brandishing its own aberrance, attracts a lot of oddball allegiances to counteract the ubiquitous religious fervor. I was surprised at how much of the fringe element stopped through on its way to everywhere else. Having spent the '90s being anywhere but Salt Lake City, I take it as no small irony that my reintroduction to Outsider Art would be in the form of the Henry Darger exhibition at the Museum of American Folk Art, located across from Lincoln Center, on 65th and Columbus, sharing the building with the only New York City ward of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints.
I don't suspect the upstairs neighbors look very approvingly upon the wacko art of Henry Darger, but the Museum of American Folk Art put on one hell of a show--"Henry Darger: The Unreality Of Being," 70-some-odd watercolor paintings with carbon tracing and pencil. The works are intricate stretches of palette and collage, like a wide-screen coloring book, choreographed with military excess. The expansive backgrounds are the most important element of staging for Darger, allowing florid shrubbery and his awe of weather.
Henry Darger worked menial jobs his entire life, dying in 1972 at the age of 80. In a tiny Chicago apartment, Darger would spend 20 years writing the world's largest known fictional work. Asocial in personality, Darger's only company would be his magnum opus, The Story Of The Vivian Girls, In What Is Known As The Realms Of The Unreal, Of The Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger's The Realms (the preferred abbreviation) is a 15,145-page novel, single-spaced, and typed on legal sized paper. Darger's own personal history is perhaps the best illumination we have on the fictional saga of the Vivian girls. In the ten years before his death, Darger wrote an autobiography, The History of My Life, a mere 10,000 pages.
When Henry was four, his mother died in childbirth to an unnamed sister who didn't survive birth. He remembers his father warmly, but was given up to a boys' home at the age of eight when Henry's father had become debilitated. At Little Sisters of the Poor, Henry was uncontrollable, thought to be retarded (it is now believed that Darger was functionally schizophrenic), and was left to the state's custody.
At the age of 17, Darger escaped and found employment at St. Joseph's Hospital in Chicago. At the age of 19, Henry began writing The Realms, first in longhand. He would spend the rest of his life working janitorial duties and washing dishes at various local hospitals. In light of the great suffering around him, and the burden of the complete loss of his family, Darger attended Catholic mass as often as five times a day. It is Darger's questioning of God about the unjust persecution of the innocent which is at the core of The Realms.
Darger's creation was never intended to be revealed, and was discovered only shortly before his death by his landlord. Darger's world is a place of civil unrest. In Darger's children's book, warring nations fight for domination and in the midst of it all; the Vivian girls. Seven Abenian sisters fleeing the forces of their evil Glendelinian oppressors. The poor sisters are frequently compelled to defrock themselves and hide among the child slaves around them. Faerie-like creatures and Christian armies are there to help them.
Darger made 300 illustrations, bound together, comprising three volumes of The Realms books. Nearly all the works are hinged pieces of paper, to facilitate book form, revealing themselves to exhibition-goers as disturbingly beautiful panoramas. Some pieces are as long as ten feet, complete with slightly arcing irregularities. Because of the high cost of materials, Darger painted on both sides of the paper.
Obsessively conscious of his poor draftsmanship, Darger would rummage through the garbage of Chicago's North Side, looking through discarded newspapers, children's books, and comics for imagery to carbon trace. At great expense, he would take favorite images to the local drugstore and have a negative shot in order to benefit from an 11" by 14" print, the largest available to him. Through Darger's interpolation, the figure would become unclothed and subject to repetition, where different characters are identifiable only through action or coloration.
The severe horizontal aspect of the paintings allows Darger to make dizzying use of foreground and background elements. A series in the Museum's north wing shows the Vivian girls escaping the Glendelinians by hiding in a cave and making strange noises. In the painting lost in a cavern, the foreground is littered with craggy composition and the viewer looks through a bleak, dense gray to a warm trail for the figures to follow.
In addition to the drawings and fictional pieces, Darger had for years been keeping a daily account of the weather. Henry's journal must have been inspired by countless hours working in front of a tiny window through Chicago's less than kind winters and his witnessing the immense destruction of Countrybrown, Illinois, by tornado in 1913. In some pieces the billowing nimbus clouds flower into tortured faces of children, with topiary bunnies dotting the landscape. His use of pending storms herding the Vivian girls across the picture plane, and the bleak sky being violated by lightning seems to ignite the armies into murderous passion. In some of the more disturbing works, the Glendelinians gut or violently choke the children. Often the same piece will show torture in monochrome counterbalanced with innocent forms easily at play in dazzling color at far left or right.
A couple near me remarked that it reminded them of the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. And to their credit, Darger's work does remind me of magic marker posters which were popular in the '70s, in that his compositions are so full of pages with uniform delineation and saccharin color scheme.
The Vivian girls are helped in their travels by creatures called Blengiglomeneans (Blengins for short). Sometimes butterfly winged, dragonlike, or satyred humanoids, the Blengins exhibit maternal care for the Vivian girls. Their role is of guardian angel, but Darger's world pits them against the weather to which even they are subject. Surely this opposition of angelic creatures to malevolent, earthly forces is illustrative of the conflict Darger had with the ideals of Roman Catholicism which he was unable to reconcile with his working world.
To call Darger's painting "unnerving" is an understatement. A date I took to the show (by the way, not a big date spot) pointed out in one of the more violent pieces, 22 at jennie richee, that two figures on the far right seemed engaged in sex, or more appropriately that the male-ish figure seemed to be raping one of the children. If the narrative held true, why didn't this male figure ascribe to the same visual form as the other Glendelinians on the same painting?
Most children in a Darger painting adopt a generic female silhouette, with some exhibiting male genitalia drawn over the tracing in pencil. MacGregor mentions in his book that nowhere in The Realms does Darger refer to either sex's genitalia, and only a few instances beg Freudian scrutiny, which makes the above so disconcerting.
Another piece, much lighter in content than 22 at jennie richee, entitled odalisque, has what seems to be an homage to Manet at the center of the composition. The title was ascribed posthumously, but the coy presentation of figure shares much with the staging in the Manet masterpiece. The painting shows a nude Blengin playfully in repose with a flower over its crotch, and a youthful smile on her face. By definition, Outsider Art can not be referential to Art History, for in doing so, it would engage a dialogue that makes the work self-aware. For Darger, the use of collage was primary. Repetition of favorite forms was the norm in a Darger painting and a large portion of his day was spent scavenging for imagery. His true lack of distinction between various echelons of pictorial material is the defense. For Darger, the process of visual narrative was through a selection of archetypes available to him in popular culture.
To judge these paintings against the Western orthodoxy of art would be unjust, for clearly Darger was unschooled. In fact, the paintings share more with Eastern tradition in their implied perspective, iconic proportions, and scroll reading. What's truly remarkable is the pre-Pop adoration of mass media, confounded by Darger's obsessive mythology.
What holds Darger aside the main of Outsider Art is that his narrative doesn't evoke folk ideology, which evolves more into itself over time, and that his vision is grounded in the iconography of children's books, nursery rhymes, and Sunday funnies. Even when his conventions diverge from rational or believable form, it is still executed in relationship to the collaged imagery directly or through carbon tracing. Darger's little girls are pictorially innocent from a ravaged mind, and offer significant discourse between artist and his maker. His paintings have a pantheon of figures in works that deify women. We know Darger's public record is by all accounts impeccable, and he was an exemplary Christian.
Ultimately, this work was not meant for you or I, but owes explanation only to one man, now dead. Henry Darger's fame is not such that the marketplace will bear the burden of collectable action figures, but if you'd gone on the weekend it was wonderfully popular and diverse in audience, energetic in discourse. And thank God the multi-media display was out of the flow of traffic." - E. Tage Larsen
Henry Darger, Book of Weather Reports

"He was right on the prediction of snow flurries and becoming very windy today, but the snow was very fine. He said little change in temperature but he was greatly wrong in that. It was 8 below, and 5 above was warmest. And he had said high in the 20s. He was right, though, on West to Northwest wind, but wrong on increasing to 18 to 28 miles per hour. It was between 30 and 40 miles per hour. " - Henry Darger, January 20, 1963­
From December 31, 1957 until December 31, 1967, the artist and writer Henry Darger (1892–1973) kept a series of six ring-binder notebooks with almost daily entries on the weather in his native Chicago. On the outside cover of the first book, Darger describes the project, with encyclopedic enthusiasm, as a "book of weather reports on temperatures, fair cloudy to clear skies, snow, rain, or summer storms, and winter snows and big blizzards—also the low temperatures of severe cold waves and hot spells of summer."
Though generally short, the entries abound in peculiarities. Darger is concerned, for instance, as much with periods of continuous temperature as with shifts—"3 to 7 am 57" (10/21/1958). Often up at 3am taking readings, Darger's descriptive vocabulary also tends toward the moral and anthropomorphic: terms like "unsettled" and "threatening" are as common as "cool" or "hot." Moreover, as the above epigraph suggests, the weatherman becomes a special figure. Darger's notebooks can, in fact, frequently be read as an excruciatingly detailed moral account book of how well the weatherman was doing his job. The implications of this job (and Darger's own self-imposed regulatory relation to it) come to take on a set of complex moral and allegorical senses. Nowhere is this more vivid than in Darger's 15,000-page illustrated novel, In the Realms of the Unreal, where weather and its interpretation are crucial—at once quotidian and allegorical, scientific and divine.
As a preface to the epic struggle between the seven Vivian Girls and the satanic Glandelinians, the Realms begins with a climatic description of the edenic period in a province called Calverinia, where the Glandelinians will soon institute child slavery and thus bring about the wars with the Catholic nations in Darger's world (1000 times the size of earth and with trillions of inhabitants): "There were never cold winters nor terrific windstorms nor anything to make people afraid." But in the fashion of any good horror movie, such serenity serves only as a foil for the wild disruptions to follow. And it is precisely a storm that signals the end of this golden age. As in the Bible, then, part of the fall is a fall into weather, into atmosphere as mutable, and motivated by forces beyond one's control.
Weather is humanized: a cloud can become "freakish in appearance," and seem "to dissolve itself into something mysterious and fearful" attended by "sickening sulphurious smell in the air." Moreover, his characters are weathermen. In one scene, after a 147-degree night in which the dogs howled continually, "Robert Vivian [father of the Vivian Girls] going near the beach of the southern sea shore, noticed a sudden change in atmosphere, and that the wind had changed to four directions in four minutes, then back to the south." Equipped with internal barometers, Dargerian protagonists like Robert are especially perceptive of such shifts in atmospheric pressures. And they need to be, since climatic variations are Signs, Omens and Portents: "Ink-dark threatening clouds of fantastic colors and shape" spread "over the southwestern horizons, with amazing animation. Darker and darker became the ponderous globular avalanches of clouds, which though purple in color at first, became an inky hue or exactly looked like smoke, while a strange ominous booming roar was heard along the distant horizon in that direction." Elsewhere Darger describes "clouds upon clouds that arose from a treacherous smudge along the rubbish under the snow, ignited by the fierce heat of the conflagration in the tree tops." Terms like "inky" and "smudge" stand out, suggesting, perhaps, that while mechanically this particular firestorm may be almost impossible to imagine, Darger—positioned as both author and god—will have drawn it for us, and is now in part referring to his drawing.
That storms are often transparently linked to their graphic, moral creator does not, however, render them without impact. It is often precisely where Darger transcends or disrupts the vaguely plausible representation of weather that the most serious violence occurs: "Eddies of power and not wind, it seemed, grasped thousands of buildings and sent them careening into scattered piles of kindling." Robert Vivian's brother, Hanson, the Governor of Calverinia, loses his wife and daughter in the storms mentioned above. Nor does Robert escape unscathed: "I was literally blown out of my house and forced to turn some complete cartwheels, landed in a chicken house in a yard opposite my own home, which was torn to pieces, and its walls scattered about." The force of the storm is compared to "missiles of a fierce and terrible invader."
Despite such abuse, Darger's characters seem to take pleasure in quasi-scientific meteorological classifications (and the occasions for inventing names afforded by them, which Darger rarely misses): "Robert noticed the action of the great typhoon clouds, and realized that it was a wild Spirian Tearian typhoon." Darger and his characters also have a Poe-like interest in the transcendental aesthetics of natural disasters—"trees and meadows glowed with a weird and spectral green splendor." Storms slow down the world, defamiliarizing the everyday, creating hallucinogenic dreamscapes: "Puffs of hot wind swept through the streets, and isolated heavy raindrops clattered like big hailstorms against the sides of the wooden houses, and made wet splotches on the sidewalk as big as a man's head."
Such strange, concrete images point to the world of Darger's drawings, and to the larger ambitions of Realms. In some ways, Darger's project can be imagined within the broadest tradition of Western religious painting: he wanted to make utterly palpable the moral universe he had invented. Realms was designed to overwhelm our senses. Narrative incidents were to be situated within complex atmospheres, so that drawings depicting violent struggles with the Glandelinians tend, for instance, to feature highly detailed, multi-colored inventories of foreground flowers, happy middle ground cottages and picket fences (jacked from coloring books), and tier upon tier of individualized cloud formations in the background, often complete with tentacles of lightning and foreboding black notches signaling oncoming storms. Even while tracing his clouds or collaging in conflagrations, Darger's drawings seem to be reinventing a world with every line. Detailing dozens of escaping Calverinian girls navigating patches of burning forest during a firestorm, he seldom gets bored or generalizes.
And it is in this way that Darger's pathological overtones, his obsessions, begin to place him in the elevated company of those painters who failed Western religious painting by allowing the need for palpable particularity, visualization, and atmosphere to overcome and obliterate the appropriate generality more frequently needed for the goals of moralizing narrative. By the early sixteenth century, the wealth of incident in medieval painting was seen, for instance, not only as messy and lacking in "realism," but also as positively distracting from the biblical narratives to be inculcated. Even the pleasure in quotidian surfaces and complex compositions we find in late-fifteenth-century painting began to seem somehow beside the "point" in relation to the pared-down, psychologized works of Michelangelo and Raphael.
For Darger, moral anchoring points pop up now and again amid hundred-page descriptions of hurricanes, land battles and sweeping conflagrations: "Beautiful is the sun, which because of its wonderful splendor and radiance, was adored as a divine being by so many pagan nations. But more beautiful is the form of the Vivian Girls." Realms is full of descriptions of characters breaking down when meeting, or even hearing about, the Vivian Girls. For most readers and viewers, though, it is this very gap between the simplistic moral rhetoric, a rhetoric of pathos and obligation, and the multivalent, pathological detail that makes Darger's work so fascinating, and so disturbing. In "illustrating" his claims (I'm thinking here of his drawings, but one might make a related argument about his text), Darger invents a world whose psychotically proliferating detail—wearing outright its fascination with inventing new ways for grown-men marauders dressed in Civil War outfits to dismember little girls' bodies—renders those very same claims intensely inadequate as an explanation of what one is presented with. This patient rendering of carnage is made all the more unsettling and bizarre by its placement within highly elaborated atmospheric and horticultural settings, which demonstrate Darger's pleasure in cloud formations, lightning patterns, overflowing garden plots, happy diagrammatic houses, and verdant storybook hillsides.
One rationale for Reports may have been as a break from the imaginative demands of Realms. Though Darger probably did not cease work on Realms during the ten-year climatic inquiry, one suspects that his long periods at the typewriter and behind the drafting board were punctuated by hourly trips to monitor the atmospheric equipment at his window. But Reports was no casual hobby or diversion: Darger shaped it into what we might now call a conceptual art project, lasting exactly ten years and concluding with the word "finished." It thus gives a kind of narrative to the weather. And if we see Realms as one kind of visualization, we might in turn imagine Reports as a complementary exercise, one offering complete immersion in climatic consciousness.
At first Darger does not abbreviate anything, as though the exercise of painstakingly writing out the month and all of the verbs and prepositions inside the weather notation would prolong the very state of awareness he seems to be after. Even when writing extremely short entries, he uses a kind of longhand—"Lowest 0. Highest nine above" (1/20/1958). Eventually this formal convention settles into "Low" and "High."
Despite his interest in sensory data, Darger's book is not exactly a rumination on one's experience of the weather. Only occasionally do sentences describing "a minute fall of light rain and wet snow," (5/4/1958) "slight streaks of clouds in the evening" (9/13/1958) or "traces of cirrus cloud" (6/4/1963) even begin to suggest this role. Such a consciousness emerges to some extent in Darger's frequent mention of practical concerns—that it was "almost impossible to walk because of ice on streets and sidewalks because of rain" or that on the next day "you at least could walk the streets" (2/10/1959). But perhaps the most luminous aspect of the weather is the frequent enigmas it opens: "Partly cloudy to clearing. Very Strange haze in the sky. Moon looked yellow green in sky" (8/28/1958). On June 7th, 1959 Darger noted a "Strange mysterious haze in the sky." The following day we learn that the "mysterious haze [is] still thicker."
Darger's attraction to such enigmas seems linked to his prominent use of the word "threatening" as a fixed position on the weather spectrum: for anyone who has read a description of a storm in Realms, "overcast to threatening" takes on ominous overtones: "Saturday August 23 1958. Partly cloudy to threatening in the afternoon. A few drops of rain." One of the crucial differences between narratives that use weather and the weather itself, though, is that "threats" do not inevitably foreshadow dramatic events. One wonders, therefore, how Darger felt about the frequent near-misses he notes: "Thunderstorm passes even northwest. No rain here" (5/17/58); "Two thunderstorms pass by without hitting" (7/13/58); or: "Threatening but no rain after all" (7/20/58). Thunder tends to get registered through its volume: "quite loud thunder, but rain only a sprinkle" (5/5/1959). If each passing storm system presents a structure of expectation, so, of course, does each season. Darger's seasonal expectations range from the mundanely descriptive—"warm out of season," or "below normal temperatures for this month of July"—to the moralizing: "Fickle Chilly May 'Where the Season they call Spring?' Eloped with old man Winter" (5/13/1959).
At the height of his enthusiasm for the project, Darger invents the monthly weather summary: "February was not so cold as January and had far less snow. But it was a bad month because it had two very bad freeze rains, and too much extremes of warm and cold. Very above normal warm weather between the cold. Fortunately no big snow storms so far this winter. How about this coming March?" Perhaps he sensed that the possible scales for such summaries were infinite, and retreated back to the day as a primary unit. In any case, the month summary of February 1959 seems to be the only one. It's clear, however, that Darger did cross-reference and study his previous notations: "O worst storm since two years" he writes on June 25, 1959. And if one suspects this to be a casual, improvised claim, other observations suggest the breadth (and pathology) of Darger's statistical cross-referencing: In January of 1963, Darger writes: "This was the first Friday we had at least two inches of snow. For all other Fridays since 1960 (no snow on these Fridays of 1959 until Friday Jan 11) extend back to 1959."
The depth of Darger's knowledge about his own project, and the character of his own retreat into the carefully fabricated world of his Chicago apartment, both suggest a strange relation to the tradition of Christian visualization and meditation, where withdrawal and focus are fundamental. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, for instance, offered a structured visualization (administered by priests to subjects on a month-long retreat) of sin, the life and passion of Christ, and the afterlife. By withdrawing, "one separates oneself from many friends and acquaintances as well as from distracting business in order to serve and praise God Our Lord." One's mind is "not divided amongst many things" and thus one is more capable of "drawing near to and reaching our Creator and Lord," and thereby receiving "graces and gifts from His divine and supreme Goodness."
More than a little receptive to such gifts, Darger turns the complicating subtexts of this project into a life practice and a kind of treatise. Interested in this gap between a moral project and its materialization, Roland Barthes points to "the mass of desire which animates [Spiritual Exercises]. The immediate force of this desire is to be read in the very materiality of the objects whose representation Ignatius calls for: places in their precise, complete dimensions, characters in their costumes, their attitudes, their actions, their actual words." For Darger, the Ignatian month becomes 60-odd years. Christ splinters into seven little girls. Fascination with materiality motivates not merely the elaborate detail of the Realms, but the simultaneous project of immersing himself in the particularity of the weather. The goal of being responsible for recording a decade of weather may suggest something of the obsessive nature of Reports. Barthes continues: "The obsessional character of the Exercises blazes forth in the accounting passion transmitted to the [subject who performs the spiritual exercises]: as soon as an object, intellectual or imaginary, appears, it is broken up, divided, numbered. The accountancy is obsessional not only because it is infinite, but above all because it engenders its own errors: being a matter of accounting for his sins ... the fact of accounting for them in a faulty way will in turn become an error that must be added on to the original list."
The Book of Weather Reports is in fact concerned with a kind of endless, self-multiplying error; this error is not Darger's, however, but the weatherman's: "He was all wrong again except the temperature" (4/12/1966); "He says warmer at night. At 40? Yet it was 59 at 6am in the morning" (9/25/1967); "Wrong in all predictions" (11/11/1966). Then there are the partially accurate days: "He said high in 50s. It was. He said north to northwest winds 15 to 25 miles per hour. It was northeast;" or: "He was right on mostly cloudy today and warmer"—before going on to point out discrepancies. In this way Darger's relation to the weather does not play itself out within the typical Christian moral economy. If the weather is often seen as a rich source of Signs, these Signs have been taken, most commonly, to indicate Divine Wrath for human sin; to make one acquainted with the limitless extent of Divine Power; or to prepare one for one's absolute powerlessness at the moment of Judgment. Atmospheric forebodings thus analogize both the limits of our agency and the inevitability of our mortality and final judgment. But none of these models quite describes what's happening in Reports. Though practicing a literal retreat, Darger in some sense preserves his own autonomy by displacing the self-critical aspect of this retreat onto another figure. This pattern can be clarified by a look at Darger's next project after Reports, his Diary: "Over cords falling down, angry temper spell with some blasphemies. Almost about to throw the ball at Christ statue. Blame me for my bad luck in things, I'm sorry to say so. I'll always be this way, always was and I don't give a damn" (4/7/1968). Darger's minute, endless projects of sorting twine and cord give rise to explosions—threats to the icons in his room and curses directed at the saints and heaven—all of which he meticulously documents, but then seldom takes responsibility for: "Tantrums over difficulty with twine and cord. Defied heaven to make things worse. Threatened to throw a ball. And in spite of being at four masses today and communion. Yet I never stood for things going wrong all my life and under any conditions, no matter what the cost, never will" (4/10/1968).
What emerges in this diary is the mechanism, and the form, of spiritual notation without their (usually constitutive) belief in the absolute authority of heaven or the absolute depravity of the human subject. Though we see occasional contrition, assertions of immutable, defiant identity like those above are more common. As his 1959 New Year's resolution, Darger writes in Reports, "I'll do the same next year, as I did this year, and that is final." Earlier, in fact, Darger had directly threatened God that if a favorite lost photograph were not returned, he would take it out on the Vivian Girls. The implication is that God is involved in but powerless over their struggle; he needs Darger to finish the account in the appropriate, moral manner. What emerges is a bizarre pattern of negotiations and displacements of what are typically bedrock givens in religious consciousness.
In Reports the serious work of anticipating and explaining the massive moral storms that punctuate Realms gets projected onto a kind of hour-to-hour calculus of Chicago's climate—and, more importantly, onto the weatherman, in his role as official interpreter of this drama. Book three takes up the weatherman in its title, announcing itself as "Book three of the Weather Reports truthful or contrary of Weatherman's reports." The weatherman is the saint/intercessor who struggles with these daily predictions. His incompletion stems not merely from his innumerable failures, but from the way these failures might evaporate, were they not carefully preserved by another. Thus the weatherman also needs the figure of Darger himself checking and noting the atmosphere and temperature every few hours from his apartment. Darger's regulatory office is not merely earthly, but divine. His project implies a fateful hour at which the sum of the weatherman's predictions will be cross-referenced with Truth. In this scene of judgment, Darger will step forth dramatically and unveil his Book.
In June of 1958 Darger starts to separate days with a blank line. By the end of the journals, days tend to have their own pages. But the increased space tends to indicate not so much an increased attention to climatic particularities as much as an increasing desire to compare what happened with what the weatherman predicted. This movement from direct notation of the weather to a moralizing comparison of these notes with official predictions can be understood as a move from the quotidian and scientific toward the allegorical and divine. At times, even, we get only the predictions without what actually happened. Thus if seasons present structures of expectation that allow for a kind of moral disappointment, the weatherman's predications focus this drama into a daily routine. In Realms, Darger is at once the faithful narrator of an infinitely segmented and complex Christian allegory, and a secret god, bursting through the surface of narration periodically to assert his absolute will.
Though Reports takes place in a continuous present tense, this same dynamic begins: from within the field of quotidian description, increasing consciousness of the moral and spiritual dilemmas posed by the weatherman's activity comes to hijack the notebooks' "scientific" aims, casting Darger as a special prosecutor whose binding judgments stem from his obsessively complete notations." - Lytle Shaw
Jessica Yu, In the Realms of the Unreal (2003)

"In 1973, after the death of reclusive, retired Chicago hospital janitor Henry Darger at 81, his landlord, the well-known photographer Nathan Lerner (1913-97), entered the cluttered third-floor room where Darger had lived since 1947 and made a mind-boggling discovery. The solitary lodger who resolutely kept to himself had devoted some 60 years of his life to writing a 15,145-page novel called "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." It is a monumental saga of child innocence and martyrdom set on an imaginary planet on which the girls' fate sparks many a battle, clearly inspired by Darger's fascination with the Civil War.
What has brought Darger enduring posthumous acclaim, however, are the paintings he created to illustrate his novel, ranging from small portraits to 12-foot-long scrolls in watercolor and collage. Darger also compiled a 5,000-page, handwritten "History of My Life," kept a 10-year meteorology diary — neighbors said the only thing he would ever talk about was the weather — and held on to hundreds of empty Pepto-Bismol bottles and almost a thousand balls of string.
Filmmaker Jessica Yu, in "In the Realms of the Unreal," outlines Darger's lonely life and interviews Lerner's elegant, sympathetic widow Kiyoko and other Darger neighbors — highlighted by enchanting animation of some of Darger's exquisite scrolls. The sequences, produced by Kara Vallow, bring to life a gossamer fairy-tale world, recalling the style of Kate Greenway illustrations but drawn from ads and comic books and other scavenged images. In this realm, the seven Vivian Sisters and other little girls are eternally menaced by an array of tyrants who sometimes succeed in subjecting the children to hideous ordeals despite the protective efforts of the dragon-like Blengins. The paintings reflect Darger's horrendous childhood, his struggles with Catholicism and his sorrow over being denied the right to adopt a child himself.
The early deaths of his parents, the adoption of his sister, his miserable experiences in Catholic homes for boys, capped by an adolescence at an asylum for feeble-minded children from which he successfully escaped at 16, certainly suggest how the impoverished Darger would want to retreat into a world of his own creation. While Yu has made a sensitive and intriguing introduction to Darger and his world, she could have gone further without the film becoming overwhelmed by the magnitude of his unsettling isolation and oeuvre.
Yu deliberately restricted her interviews to those who knew Darger and eschewed art experts and psychologists. But those who knew him, even those especially sensitive to him as a remote individual, like Kiyoko Lerner, admit they didn't, and couldn't, really know him. Therefore, why not include remarks by John M. MacGregor, a psychoanalyst whose 2003 book "Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal" argues that Darger was a victim of Asperger's syndrome, a milder form of autism.
MacGregor has developed a persuasive analysis of the paintings, and surely his comments and conclusions would be at least as valuable as those by a neighbor who guesses that the reason Darger's little girls have male genitalia is because Darger didn't know anything about sex.
Yu has a perfect right to her own artistic intentions, which include a desire for her audience to do draw its own conclusions from what she has presented of Darger's work and what she has revealed (which, it could be argued, isn't really sufficient). More troubling, ultimately, in a film that continually stresses the unknowable nature of its subject, is the absence of knowable facts. Did Darger leave a will? In any event, who became his heirs? (Reportedly, Kiyoko Lerner controls his estate.) How were the Lerners able to keep Darger's room intact until 2000, and why was it dismantled then? Who profited from the sale of a 9-foot-long, double-sided drawing by Darger, valued at $50,000 to $70,000, when it came up for auction at Christie's two years ago? Who is breaking up this interconnected "Realms of the Unreal" art — and why?
If an artist and his work are worth exploring in the first place, isn't the fate of his legacy, especially one so special and so long held in secrecy, worth knowing? Yu easily persuades the viewer to care about Henry Darger and his art and to become concerned about its fate. By extending her 82-minute film to 90 minutes she could easily have answered all these questions and included some insights from MacGregor.
In this light, it is good to know that Darger did at last bring "Realms of the Unreal" to a happy conclusion and that he did resolve his struggle with his faith. And there's consolation in Kiyoko Lerner's remark that she "couldn't imagine anyone with a richer inner life." - Kevin Thomas

"By far the most important supplement to the [Darger's] book, however, exists in the several hundred watercolor paintings Darger left in his room, many of them illustrations for The Realms of the Unreal. They transform Darger’s apocalyptic text into a body of images that are among the most original and beautiful in outsider art. These works- pencil drawings on paper painted over with watercolor and occasional additions of collage- illustrate incidents in the book with a precision and amplitude of detail not possible in a written narrative. Textual annotations are also typically parts of these compositions, suggesting that picturing the reality of the event by every means available was a pressing need for the artist. The sizes of Darger’s work range from the measurements of standard drawing pads to mural-sized works made of joined sheets of 3 or 4 feet high and as much as 10 to 12 feet long. The sheer number of large format works makes it clear that Darger conceived the epic format as appropriate to the dimensions of his vision. Because artists’ materials were costly, Darger’s sheets usually contain finished, independent compositions on both sides. The logistics of how Darger was able to work on these large pictures in the cramped quarters he occupied are remarkable. The only conclusion possible is that he worked in the manner of scroll painters- one segment at a time. But if this is the case, memory had to be relied upon to govern the overall coherence of these exceedingly complex compositions.
There is little purpose to add to the polemic that has continued over the last several decades concerning the artistic validity of outsider art. The great emotional and formal beauties found in the best examples of this work as well as its profound influence on “high art” in our time would appear to have settled the matter. Darger was certainly an untutored artist in any traditional sense and his work, like that of other outsiders, stands outside of the history of art. He probably never visited a museum and had only very limited exposure to art. Yet his creative sensibility was such that it was possible for him to spin gold from the daily experience and fantasy, which in his mind easily co-mingled. If Darger was largely ignorant of art in the museums, he was in close touch with the abundant imagery of popular culture available to the pack-rat collector. Topical events are continually reflected in his texts and images just as cut-outs from newspapers and magazines, comic books and religious tracts easily found a place in his visual narratives.
Like all genuine talents, Darger developed a set of techniques that was at once individual and entirely adequate to his expressive requirements. He was at best a mediocre draftsman, for example, having particular trouble with human figures. Yet Darger created an art filled with legions of figures whose images were appropriated. Darger’s method was to simply trace images from children’s book illustrations, comic strips and similar sources. If the needed image was not of the required size, the artist would take it to the photography counter of a near-by drugstore and have it enlarged or reduced to the proper measurements. Frequently favorite images were repeated in a given picture as well as additional works. Other elements deemed suitable- butterfly cut-outs, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, fragments from coloring books and game boards and many more- were confiscated into Darger’s pictures and, because of the easy alliance in them of the real and the imagined, seemed perfectly at home.
Darger’s particular brilliance lies in a keen organizational sense. His major compositions bring together massive casts of characters in ways that surely would have gladdened the heart of a Cecil B. DeMille. These elaborate forces are deployed with a sure eye for intricate, often cunningly balanced relationships that activate the entire picture plane. Darger’s compositions are commonly set in expansive landscapes or, somewhat less frequently, in interiors, both particularly well-suited to the horizontal format he favored.
There is a constant attention to the distribution of visual incident over both ground, sky or wall planes. Darger’s skies, for example, are always active, often with storm clouds and networks of lightning or with cloud forms containing double images of figures or faces. As a child, Darger witnessed a devastating tornado, and skies with rolling clouds and electrical fireworks are often present in his more turbulent scenes. I benign settings the artist contrives rich and colorful patterns in depictions of crowds of children, flowers and radiantly colored insects.
One of the most appealing and consistently rewarding aspects of Darger’s art is his sumptuous feeling for color. His richly orchestrated palette reinforces compositional structure and provides treasures of felicitous and often unexpected harmonies. Even in the most pale and subtle combinations of hue, Darger establishes chromatic relationships that are opulently atmospheric.
Darger’s imagery, when it details mayhem and sometimes the lurid mistreatment of little girls, can be distressing. An observer characterized a picture in a sunny landscape in which images of children, exotic flowers, butterflies and exploding bombs were joined as “being like Beirut.” The only possible response in such instances is that art, being often fashioned from artists’ obsessions, is rarely a vehicle for the description of perfection: Darger created art from the visions available to him.
Viewers are also perplexed by the clearly androgynous anatomy of Darger’s nymphettes, curiously enough a trait never in evidence among the seven angelic Vivian girls. It is not possible to fathom the causes or intricacies of Darger’s fantasies, but it should be said that his public behavior appears to have been without blemish. A saintly man who frequently attended Mass, Darger saw himself as the ardent protector of children. He could, therefore, in his words and images, subject his creatures to terrible trials from which it was in his power to rescue them. The wars, fires and tempests that form the context of his art undoubtedly reflect an unconscious conflict that seems to have given him little respite. God was Darger’s protagonist and consequently the conflict could be nothing less than cosmic. This poignant struggle is extensively documented in the artist’s diaries, which record by turns his pleading and rancorous exchanges with the Creator. If Darger’s fantasies often hovered on the fringes of sanity, his art enabled him to transform his obsessions into a luminous production that, in its best moments, transcends the pain and circumstances of its making." - Stephen Prokopoff


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