The quiet hospital custodian collected piles of ephemera.
He brought newspapers, photographs, magazines, coloring books, religious pamphlets and anything else he could find back to his small Chicago apartment. He needed it for his work.
His primary obsession was "In the Realms of the Unreal", which consisted of a 15,145-page, densely-typed narrative titled "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". Serving as a companion to the text are three bound volumes featuring hundreds of detailed illustrations. F.N. D'Alessio of the Associated Press wrote in 2009: "Darger illustrated his works with hundreds of hand-colored collages, up to 12 feet long and many double-sided, assembled from images he had clipped or traced from magazines and other sources." That's why he needed all of that ephemera, which he meticulously collected, sorted and filed away in his one-room apartment.
Darger, unbeknownst to the bustling city around him2, spent six decades on "In the Realms of the Unreal". But it wasn't his only project. He also wrote an autobiography of more than 5,000 pages, a ten-year weather journal, and another work of fiction, titled "Crazy House", which spans more than 10,000 handwritten pages and also features the Vivian sisters.
"In the Realms of the Unreal" (right) brought more attention to Darger's life.
Several books focus on Darger and feature examples of his unique artwork. The most affordable is probably "Sound and Fury: The Art of Henry Darger", which can be found for less than $30 used.
Other books on Darger are far more pricey. They include "Henry Darger" by Klaus Biesenbach; "Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings" by Michael Bonesteel; "Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal" by John M. MacGregor; "Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum" by Brooke Davis Anderson and Michel Thevoz; "Henry Darger: Disasters Of War" by Klaus Biesenbach; and "Henry Darger's Room" by Kiyoko Lerner, Nathan Lerner and David Berglund.
This entry doesn't even begin to touch on Darger's life or the themes of Christianity, innocence, violence (especially child abuse), slavery, transgenderism, war3 and good vs. evil in his volumes of work.
If you want to learn more about Darger, here are some websites to check out:
- The American Folk Art Museum's image gallery and Darger Study Center.
- The in-depth Wikipedia page on Darger4
- "Posthumous fame grows for artist Henry Darger", a 2008 article by F.N. D'Alessio of the Associated Press
- "Where Beauty Collides With Creepy", a 2010 review of a Darger art exhibit by Ken Johnson of The New York Times
- The POV page for the "In The Realms of the Unreal" documentary, which has some nifty features, including, "The Frightful Storm", a short excerpt of Darger's writing
Addendum: August 22, 2011
Bad news. The financial picture for the American Folk Art Museum is bleak, according to The New York Times, and its holdings, including a large collection of Henry Darger material, could be heading elsewhere.
1. His birth date is, however, disputed.
2. Darger's works were not discovered until his landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, came across them shortly before his death in 1973.
3. According to his biography on the American Folk Art Museum website, Darger's main work "loosely parallels many of the events of the American Civil War. Darger was a Civil War enthusiast, and he chronicled the flags, maps, and officers in separate journals."
4. Especially haunting and disturbing are the description of the 1911 murder of 5-year-old Elsie Paroubek, her photograph in a Chicago newspaper, and how those things inspired Darger's work.