Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings
By Michael Bonesteel
Review by Karl Wolff
American Odd returns to Chicago for another visionary individual who penned a massive work with an oddball cosmology. In this case it is the reclusive artist and writer Henry Darger (1892 – 1973). Several books have been written about Darger, but I chose Michael Bonesteel’s Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings because it highlighted both his art and his writing.
Darger is an icon of the American Odd because his art and writing are so unclassifiable. At first blush, his art can also be shocking and offensive. Michael Bonesteel, a Chicago-based art critic and authority on outsider art, defuses the hysterical accusations and exaggerations usually laid at Darger’s doorstep with a precisely crafted biographical essay.
“Starting around 1910, he [Darger] began constructing an alternative reality from the ground up, and, for a period of some sixty years thereafter, he devoted the majority of his time and energy to bringing to life his magnum opus, In the Realms of the Unreal, first in words and then in images. He did not do this to make his “art” or “literature.” He did not do this to gain fame or make money. He did it to save his life. And though he fought with God over it and risked losing his soul in the process, it worked.” [Emphasis mine.]
Darger, like many of the eccentric individuals profiled in the American Odd series, was propelled by something greater than fame or financial fortune. Devoting all his time and energy to 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 saved him and healed him.
During his childhood, Darger endured several traumas. In quick succession his mother died, his sister was given up for adoption, and his father, crippled and impoverished, sent Darger to St. Augustine’s Poor House. Despite these traumas occurring in such early childhood, Darger “demonstrated a keep aptitude for spelling and history, and he became fascinated by snowstorms and thunderstorms. He was so sensitive to the beauty of the weather that he once cried when the snow stopped falling.” In the day when he attended public school he “developed a great interest in the Civil War.”
Darger’s experiences in the Poor House were not good ones. Picked on by other children, blamed for things he didn’t do, he was punished by the priests who hit his hands with a length of hard rubber. His odd actions “earned him the nickname ‘Crazy'”. At age eight “his godmother had him baptized a Catholic.” He took the doctrines of Catholicism seriously, even though he had trouble containing his temper. At age twelve or thirteen he received the diagnosis that his “heart wasn’t in the right place,” and then was transferred to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. While in the Asylum, itself a notorious hotbed of abuse, neglect, and violence, Darger learned that his father died. Ironically, he found the Asylum a safe haven. He attempted to run away from the Asylum three time, the last time succeeding. He made his way to Chicago to live with his godmother. She was able to secure a janitor’s position at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Shortly thereafter, Darger would begin work on his magnum opus.
The challenge with an individual like Henry Darger is categorization. His childhood traumas and institutionalization make it easy to label him “insane.” (The nude children with penises being violently killed by adults don’t help the matter.) There is no mistaking Darger as a psychologically damaged and vulnerable individual, but classifying him as an outsider artist isn’t exact either. In the Realms of the Unreal shows a conscientious effort at world-building. The art itself are accomplished works combining collage and watercolor. The writing itself exhibits a high degree of craftsmanship and learning, despite Darger’s gaps in education. The epic struggle between the Vivian Girls and their antagonists combines literary conventions of the epic along with tropes that anticipate postmodern literature. Darger inserts himself into the narrative, sometimes as a heroic figure, sometimes as a villain, along with being the narrator. The charge of insanity comes in because his traumatic childhood and indigent adulthood threatened his mental stability. During the work’s creation, the barrier between fantasy and reality frayed and then shattered. Darger didn’t know the difference between what was real and what wasn’t.
But Bonesteel doesn’t get caught up in labels and playing psychiatrist. He cites a New Art Examiner article written by Jack Burnham in 1979 who likens Darger to Rousseau and William Blake. Bonesteel says, “The categorization of artists can be a useful tool in helping us to understand them, but then there are artists like Darger who may straddle more than one category or even defy categorization.”
Henry Darger was a reclusive figure unschooled in the arts, but went on to create his own idiosyncratic long-form illustrated narrative. Bonesteel asserts Darger’s readymade technique anticipated the Pop Art of Warhol and Liechtenstein. Darger’s narrative work also anticipated fanfiction where fans can utilize their favorite pop culture franchises to create their own personal narratives. In some cases these amateur fiction writers are working out their own personal and emotional problems. Like Darger, they use pre-existing properties as a means of catharsis and self-therapy. In the case of Henry Darger, he used characters from magazines and coloring books, re-fashioning them into his own cosmology of heroes and villains.
The American Odd series seeks to celebrate individuals like Henry Darger. Held at a distance, he used his natural talents to create a unique cosmology and a large-scale art work that defies easy categorization. What he did was heroic, even if it was only to preserve his sanity from a harsh, unforgiving world.