Thursday, 14 November 2013

Henry Darger : In the Realms of the Insane

Henry Darger (1892-1973) was the Outsider artist ne plus ultra. He was born and lived his entire life in Chicago. His mother died when he was still a child and as his father could not support him Henry was institutionalised in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children for 'self abuse', a euphemism for masturbation rather than self-harm (glad I grew up in more enlightened times). 

Our 'Enry

Aged around 16 he managed to escape, headed back to Chicago and found work as a janitor at a Catholic hospital, a position which he retained for the rest of his life and paid enough for him to feed himself, rent a small apartment, and pay for sketchbooks and art materials. He would scrimp enough to buy photographic enlargements of magazine illustrations (pre-Xerox) which he would trace with carbon paper because he felt he could not draw figures well enough.

At Cairns Fair, Violets sisters comes to he rescue and all the officers except cannon are captured. Note the strange phenomena.
He amassed a huge stash of sketchbooks and scrolls over 43 years, depicting his grand narrative - 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, detailing the adventures of a group of children and their quest to escape slavery in a fantasy land populated by monsters, American Civil War soldiers, thunderstorms and general weirdness. The illustrations accompanied a 15,000 page single-spaced typed manuscript. All of this was totally unknown to the rest of the world until his apartment was opened up after his death and his landlords discovered these amazing artefacts.

At Jennie Richee. Hard pressed and harassed by the storm.
You will note that many of the girls have rudimentary male genitals. This may have been how Darger got his sexual kicks, but it seems likely that he simply had no knowledge of the female anatomy and simply assumed girls were endowed the same as boys.

At Norma Catherine. But wild thunderstorm with cyclone like wind saves them.

Place not mentioned. Esposide 3 2 Escape with great number of kids still fighting.

Selection of Darger sketchbooks from National Folk Museum archive
I discovered his work in the National Folk Museum, New York, and it totally blew my mind. I like a lot of Outsider Art from many different countries, but for me Darger will always be the leader of the pack. Despite his seemingly crazed vision, it has been suggested that he was not mentally ill but perhaps severely institutionalised and/or autistic. It has been argued that his posthumous fame is mostly due to exploitation by his unscrupulous landlord, but much of the work is in public collections or at least accessible to the public and so may still be enjoyed by many more people than they would be in a locked room.

Child headed whiplash tail Blengins, Blengiglom-enean Island.

Jessica Yu's documentary In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) is well worth viewing (full version on YouTube) for it's animated drawings and further detail on the life of this remarkable artist. I have the poster on my kitchen wall and enjoy Henry's company whenever it's time to eat.

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