by E.Tage Larsen
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
Brooklyn, New York