Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Happy birthday, Henry Darger

Above: The cover of John M. MacGregor's 720-page book, "Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal", features a piece of Darger's artwork. Used copies of MacGregor's book are available on Amazon (for several hundred dollars).

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.

Henry Joseph Darger Jr. (right) was born on this date in 1892.1 During his reclusive lifetime, he produced a startling and somewhat-impenetrable body of work while toiling away the decades in his tiny living space. Following his death in 1973, he became an art-world celebrity, and published reproductions of his works now sell for amounts Darger probably couldn't have comprehended.

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.

Major scholarship has been done on Darger and his works in the past 30 years. He continues to dwell mostly in obscurity outside of the art world, although the 2004 Jessica Yu documentary "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:

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.

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