Artists You May Not Know: Henry Darger

I’ve been struggling with how to tackle Darger for a while now. I think that his life and work are so complex that it’s difficult to wrap your head around the kind of life that he lived. To be blunt, Darger is strange.

How does an unknown hospital janitor for his entire life create a 15,145-page novel manuscript? How does that janitor create hundreds of watercolor illustrations, another 10,000-page sequel to that manuscript, and a 4,672 page “autobiography.” Furthermore, how does somebody like that not show a single page of that work to anybody until it was discovered after his death?

TW: This article contains discussion of child abuse, some of a sexual nature. Please approach with caution.

A Difficult Life

“Unlike most children, I hated to see the day come when I will be grown up . . . I wished to be young always,

Henry Darger

Darger’s life from nearly the moment it started was fraught with tragedy. He was born on April 12, 1892, at 350 W. 24th Street in Chicago. At the age of 4, Darger lost his mother, Rosa Darger while she was giving birth to his sister. His sister was subsequently put up for adoption. Darger never knew his sister.

Darger’s father fortunately was a kind and generous father but by the time Darger turned 8, his own father’s declining health made him unable to care for him. Darger’s intelligence meant that he had been enrolled in public school at a fairly high level and after his father’s hospitalization he was moved to an orphanage where he could continue his education at that public school.

Unfortunately Darger by this point had started gaining a reputation for strangeness, gaining the nickname of “Crazy” and his own father even calling him peculiar. Darger had a tendency to make strange noises and point out the mistakes of adults leading to his unpopularity. The final straw came from reports of “self abuse” from the school. By self abuse I mean he was apparently masturbating excessively. As a result of this seemingly dire situation, he was sent to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, IL. I could spend a whole article discussing the history of that school, but just know that it was horribly understaffed with overcrowded conditions and far too common deaths.

Darger’s time at the asylum to put it bluntly was not very positive. The school had forced child labor, severely violent punishments and rampant emotional abuse. It is also very likely that Darger experienced sexual abuse while at the asylum which led to some of his later work.

He received more bad news when after 8 years of living at the asylum, Darger found out his father had died. Darger had never seen his father since he had been sent to the care facility eight years prior.

Fed up and miserable, Darger began trying to escape the asylum. He hopped on a train for instance in an attempt to flee but was caught by police and sent back. Finally after two attempts Darger was able to leave once and for all. He made his way to his godmother’s home in Chicago and found work as a janitor in St. Joseph’s Hospital. It’s at this point that exact records become a little fuzzy.

Darger went to Mass daily and sometimes went to as many as five services in a day. He was somewhat shabby but clean, quiet, and alone, and collected found objects like eyeglasses off the street. He was briefly drafted into the US Army in 1917 but was quickly discharged honorably due to eye issues.

Darger really only had one friend: William Schloeder. The friendship that they had was strong and genuine with the two often going to the amusement park or to Schloeder’s home. He was even grateful enough to Scholeder that he wrote him into his book (more on that to come.) Needless to say when Schloeder moved to Texas and died shortly after, Darger was devastated.

After 1922, Darger continued to lead a difficult and solitary life. After leaving St. Joseph’s Hospital due to beef with a nun, he found work at Grant Hospital as a dishwasher. Darger lived in a boarding house on the third floor in a large single room with a smaller attached room that was owned by police captain Walter Gehr. Gehr’s children would oftentimes sneak into Darger’s room and look in awe at the walls covered in artwork. Darger oftentimes seemed to have visitors over constantly but it was in fact him mimicking conversations he remembered with other people or that he overheard. He was quite good at that.

Once again Darger’s life took another tumble as he was asked to resign from his dishwasher job in 1936. Something about being friendly with the previous supervisor, who was the new one’s rival. He bounced back to St. Joseph’s, got fired again, got hired at a different hospital in 1947 and worked there until leg pains forced him to retire in 1963.

Darger started doing daily weather report journals at the time. Not super relevant but kind of neat.

If you thought that his luck would improve, nope! Darger got hit by a car in 1969 and by 1972 was completely unable to ascend the stairs to his room. He was admitted late that year to the St. Augustine’s Home operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. The very same home where his father had died so many years prior.

Darger’s final entry in his diary stated

January 1, 1971. I had a very poor nothing like Christmas. Never had a good Christmas all my life, nor a good new year, and now… I am very bitter but fortunately not revengeful, though I feel should be how I am…

Henry Darger

His new landlord Nathan Lerner asked one of his tenants David Berglund to clear out Darger’s belongings from the room. As Berglund did he found himself enthralled and floored by the sheer brilliance of the work he saw being an artist himself. Unfortunately by the time that Berglund came to ask Darger about his work at the nursing home, all Darger had to say was

“Too late now”

And that was the end of Henry Darger.

It is a humbling experience now to have to admit that not until I looked under all the debris in his room did I become aware of the incredible world that Henry had created from within himself. It was only in the last days of Henry Darger’s life that I came close to knowing who this shuffling old man really was.

Nathan Lerner

In the Realms of the Unreal.

The first and most fascinating of all of Darger’s works is In the Realms of the Unreal or if one wants to get technical about title 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,

Now that’s a mouthful. In the Realms of the Unreal to put it candidly is horrifically brutal, violent and full of images of child torture.

The lore of the book for lack of a better word is completely insane. Over six decades Darger bound in fifteen immense, densely typed volumes traced images cut from magazines and catalogs in watercolors some of the most deeply disturbing work ever put to paper.

I’ll try to explain the lore as simply as I can.

The story follows the seven daughters of Robert Vivian, who lead a child rebellion against the slavery imposed by them by John Manley and the Glandelinians. The rebellion does not go smoothly with scenes of horrific deaths being common. It is essentially a child vs adults book. The intricate mythos encompasses a vast celestial realm, where a colossal planet takes center stage, with Earth revolving around it as a moon. Within this world, the majority of inhabitants adhere to Christianity, predominantly of the Catholic faith. There also resides the enigmatic “Blengigomeneans,” often referred to as “Blengins.” These colossal winged entities possess curved horns and, on occasion, adopt human or part-human guises, occasionally even assuming the visage of children. While they generally exhibit benevolent tendencies, a faction of Blengins harbors profound suspicions toward all humans, a distrust stemming from past Glandelinian transgressions. There are actually two endings to the story, one in which the Vivian Girls and Christianity are triumphant and another in which they are defeated and the godless Glandelinians reign.

What may have inspired Darger was his deep care for children and in particular his anger at the way that children were treated. He collected newspapers clippings of crime incidents involving children and lamented them as tragedies. In particular the case of the missing Elsie Paroubek a five year old girl who went missing and was later found murdered particularly bothered Darger. His loss of the newspaper clipping of Paroubek’s photo was described by him to be a “huge disaster and calamity” and he repeatedly prayed for the photo to be returned. It was seemingly this loss that fuelled Darger’s desire to work on his magnum opus. Paroubek as well take a key role in the context of the book, acting as the murdered martyr of the first child slave rebellion leading to the war erupting.

Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago

You thought the Vivian Girls were gone? Naw, here’s a sequel!

Information on Crazy House is far more difficult to uncover but from what I have gathered it’s another 10,000 page manuscript about the characters from before. Unlike the last one which was a fantasy tale this is more of a horror story.

It’s a story of a house that is seized by demonic possession and plagued by restless spirits, or perhaps being sentient itself. Children vanish within its walls, only to be later found brutally slain. The investigation falls upon the shoulders of the Vivians and Penrod, who uncover the chilling truth that these murders are the sinister handiwork of malevolent ghosts. The girls embark on a mission to exorcise the malevolence that infests the house, but their efforts prove futile. They resort to arranging for a series of solemn Holy Masses to be conducted in every room, hoping to cleanse the malevolence that lurks within. However, despite their persistent rituals, the evil refuses to relent. The narrative concludes abruptly, leaving us suspended in the midst of a scene, with their fate hanging in the balance after a harrowing ordeal at the Crazy House.

Anyway, moving on….

The Story of My Life

If you thought finding information about Crazy House was bad, oh boy this one was impossible to figure out. Essentially all I could gather was that it was Darger’s attempt to write an autobiography. but when he tried to write it, it didn’t work out that well.

According to sources it is about 295 pages of actual autobiography and then 4000+ pages of fiction about a tornado called Sweetie Pie. Say what you will abou Darger but he certainly knew how to keep things interesting.

Conclusion: Who Owns an Outsider?

Darger died without any descendents and with no close family. As such the landlords who rented out to Darger took claim of his artwork. Kiyoko and Nathan Lerner worked relentlessly to promote Darger and slot him in as one of the seminal figures of outsider art. The American Folk Art Museum in New York opened a Henry Darger Study Center in 2001 for instance.

Here’s a quote about the current state of ownership.

The fight over the rightful ownership of Darger’s work first reached the courts when a group of 50 or so people claiming to be his relatives filed “petition for determination of heirship” in an Illinois probate court last January. According to The New York Times, Chicago collector Ron Slattery had tracked down several descendents and raised to them the question about rights, believing that family should manage an artist’s estate. Most are first cousins twice or three times removed.

So yeah essentially a bunch of distant relatives are all trying to claim their stake on the Darger money that has been flowing in now. In June 2022 one of the distant relatives became authorized to be a supervised administrator of the estate and turned around to immediately sue the Lerners. The lawsuit at this very moment is proceeding

I’ll just copy paste this because it’s neat the popularity of Darger these days

Anyway in my opinion the Lerners absolutely deserve ownership of the work. They spent decades promoting Darger’s work when they could have easily tossed it

I’ll copy paste this final section because it’s neat.

Darger’s works are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the American Folk Art Museum in New York, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Collection de l’art brut, the Walker Art Center, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, High Museum of Art, and the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art in Villeneuve d’Ascq, and the Museum of Old and New Art, in Tasmania; Australia.

Darger’s art also has been featured in many notable museum exhibitions, including “The Unreality of Being” exhibit curated by Stephen Prokopoff. It was also seen in “Disasters of War” (P.S. 1, New York, 2000), where it was presented alongside prints from the famous Francisco Goya series The Disasters of War and works derived from these by the British contemporary-art duo Jake and Dinos Chapman. Darger’s work has also been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Setagaya Art Museum, and the Collection de l’art brut, La Maison Rouge, Museum Kunstpalast, Musée d’Art Moderne de Lille-Métropole, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

In 2008, the exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, titled “Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger”, examined the influence of Darger’s œuvre on 11 artists, including Trenton Doyle Hancock, Robyn O’Neil and Amy Cutler, who were responding not only to the aesthetic nature of Darger’s mythic work – with its tales of good versus evil, its epic scope and complexity, and its transgressive undertone – but also to his driven work ethic and all-consuming devotion to artmaking.[22]

Also in 2008, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago opened its permanent exhibit of the Henry Darger Room Collection,[20] an installation that meticulously recreates the small northside Chicago apartment where Darger lived and made his ar

Not bad for a janitor from Chicago. Anyway. Watch the documentary In the Realms of the Unreal if you want to know more. It’s good. It has Dakota Fanning in it. It even animates some of the scenes from the book.

Postscript: Personal thoughts

I think the thing that fascinates me so much about Darger and outsider art, in general, is the lack of commercial motive or gain that comes from their creation. Darger was more than happy to let his artwork die along with him and never bothered to try and promote it. The action of creating something simply for the sake of creation feels almost like a noble act. It’s art in its simplest form art that is raw and unfiltered and unconstrained by societal boundaries or restrictions. It’s art that defines what it means to be an artist that pushes us not only to the edge of our limits but all the way to the outside. Who knows how many artists like Darger are out there creating art in peace content with the act of creation as its own reward?

Until next time. Peace.

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