an artist you should know: Henry Darger

Henry Darger (1892-1973) is usually one of the first artists mentioned when what is known as Outsider Art is brought up. Outsider art, also known as art brut, is art produced by people with no formal training in art, and no connection to the art world. The result is usually visually jarring, particularly to people who are ensconced within the institutionalized art world, and intensely personal, often having a narrative and symbolic system all its own.

Darger was born in Chicago, and his early life was characterized by hardship and loss. His parents had both died by 1905, and he lived for the rest of his adolescence in Catholic boys' homes and institutions, where he faced what they would have called "treatment" or "discipline" in those days, and what we would call "horrible child abuse" today. Modern research shows that Darger may have had Asperger's Syndrome, which in his time was unfortunately not recognized as it is today. In his later life, he lived in the same apartment in Chicago for over 40 years, until his death, working menial labor in a Catholic hospital until about ten years before his death, and attending Catholic Mass regularly. He was, in his own way, deeply concerned with the wellfare of children, and his work reflects this. Darger and his one close friend, William Shloder, discussed founding a "Children's Protective Society," which would adopt out orphans to loving families, but this never came to fruition.

After his death in 1973, Darger's landlords found his life's work in his apartment. It's a book, fully illustrated, called The Realms of the Unreal, and covers several storylines, totaling at 15 volumes and 15,145 pages. To put it in an extremely simplified way, it tells the stories of an alternate world in which children, namely the inspirational Vivian Girls, the victims of child labor, rise up against a draconian regime to restore peace and harmony. He provided two endings, one with the Vivian Girls triumphing and one with the Vivian Girls in defeat. He also wrote an autobiography (5,084 pages--comparatively light reading), another, unfinished piece of fiction that weighs in at over 10,000 pages, and kept a daily weather journal.

To create his images, Darger traced images found in newspapers, magazines and ads, sometimes multiple times in one scene, as seen in the top image, and he also frequently used collage, collecting old periodicals for source material. He seemed to like the Coppertone Girl in particular. He worked with watercolors, and seemed to have a natural talent for it. His scenes are typically large and epic, and feature little girls engaged in full warfare with grown men. His work can be disturbingly violent, too, showing the terrible tortures inflicted upon the girls by the evil villains. It's interesting to note that Darger focused on girls rather than boys, and even more interesting to note that though the child characters are ostensibly female, some of them have male genitalia.

I personally love Darger's work. I love its raw psychology and the fact that Darger was not interested in academic art, but was making art for himself and only himself. There's something nice about that, and refreshing. And Darger seems like a real sweetheart, too. Caravaggio, for instance, is one of my favorite artists, but he was probably a real asshole. And everyone knows how misogynistic Picasso was. Darger, on the other hand, stuck up for the children, saying that each one had a 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."