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Facing the fireplace in Darger's room

HENRY JOSEPH DARGER (12 April 1892-13 April 1973):
"I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A CHILD AND HERE I AM
A LAME OLD MAN—DARN IT!"
"What's all this nonsense about more Darger research? Surely we know enough about him. Isn't it about time someone talked about the greatness of the paintings, which in my neck of the woods is considered as great as Hartley's & Ryder's." Those words from Trevor Winkfield, that acute Yorkshire artist who gave up Leeds for Manhattan awhile back, make me willing to parade my ignorance. Who isn't ignorant when it comes to this obsessive, agonized man?
 
Henry Darger is what they are calling in New York this season a "self-taught" artist. This is a dreary word. Can one imagine any artist who is not self-taught, by definition? "Naive" and "visionary" also have their problems as tags. "Outsider" gets the job done better than most. The critic Peter Schjeldahl has a good definition of Outsider Art: "Art from cultures that consist of one person each." Arthur C. Danto writes clearly about art in The Nation magazine and says: "If we were Germans we could frame a nice Heideggerian compound such as Ausderkunstweltkunstleren—"artists-not-of-the-art-world"—which I do not especially recommend for any forthcoming dictionary of art." Labels won't help us much with Henry Darger, or such rare birds as Augustus Vincent Tack, the Californian who calls himself Jess, Forrest Bess, Ivan Albright, or Joseph Cornell.
 
Henry Darger seems to have come out of nowhere. Does the Hale-Bopp comet put on camouflage and land one American autochthon after another in the middle of the Deadly Desert? Darger isn't the first, but maybe he is the strangest. How to account for Bill Traylor? In 1939, he comes hobbling into Montgomery, Alabama, off the old plantation and, at the age of 85, starts putting pencil marks on shirt cardboard with all the breathtaking authority of those white folks who lived in caves in the Valley of the Dordogne and the Cantabrian Mountains some 25,000 years ago. How to account for J.B. Murry, another illiterate, dirt-poor black man, a tenant farmer who lived all his days in a primitive shack in Glascock County, Georgia, out in the country near Sparta? How could he possibly have made 1500 drawings of such extraordinary sophistication and filled them with "spirit script" only to be read by people with godly hearts?
 
Now, Henry Darger. A wrecked and broken-hearted man, who wrote a huge narrative saga for nobody but himself to read; and then illustrated it with 300 scroll-like, narrative watercolours for nobody but himself to see. He was born in Chicago in 1892. His father was "a tailor and a kind and easygoing man." His mother died before he was four, in childbirth. He never saw his little sister, who was given up for adoption.
 
When he was eight his father became crippled and had to go off to live in a Catholic mission, the Little Sisters of the Poor's Home for the Elderly (where Henry would, eventually, also die). Henry entered a Catholic boys' home. In 1905, his father died. And Henry was institutionalized in a place named the Lincoln Developmental Center for Feebleminded Children, in Lincoln, Illinois, apparently because a doctor had written: "Little Henry's heart is not in the right place."
 
He managed to escape the asylum in 1909 after a series of attempts. He went back to Chicago and sought menial employment in a series of Catholic hospitals, which he continued to do until 1963, when illness forced him to retire. In 1930, he had moved into a single large room on the Near North Side at 851 Webster Street. This was in an old boarding house that the photographer and product designer Nathan Lerner later bought to save from demolition. And so it was that Nathan Lerner was Henry Darger's landlord for 20 some years before his death in 1973.
 
I have heard of Nathan Lerner as far back as 1951, when I put in a semester at the Institute of Design in Chicago. He had been the school's education director until 1949, an appointment made by Walter Gropius. Lerner had studied with Gyorgy Kepes and with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and was widely admired by the photographers I knew at the ID: Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Art Sinsabaugh, and Art Siegel. Lerner is a very interesting figure in his own right, not just because he opened the door upon the secret world of Henry Darger. Let me quote from his "A Personal Recollection":
 
 "I saw Henry Darger every day for about twenty years. A shuffling old man, a recluse who never had visitors except for a rare visit from a priest.
 
"He lived in a single, large room that he had rented since 1930. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with debris of his scavenging. He would take long walks in order to gather his amazing collections, and at great distances from home he could be seen poking through garbage with his cane, looking for his treasures. Crucifixes, broken toys, old magazines, scores of used eyeglasses repaired with tape, dozens of empty bottles of Pepto Bismol, hundreds of balls of twine that he made by taping small pieces together; the list was endless...
 
"It was very hard to believe that Henry was alone in his room. He was a remarkable mimic and sometimes there would be an animated quarrel going on between a deep gruff voice, which was supposed to be he, and a querulous high-pitched voice, which was supposed to be his superior, a nun, at the hospital where he worked as a menial. At other times he would sing strange songs, perhaps in Portuguese, inasmuch as be claimed to be Brazilian.
 
"For many years after an accident at the hospital, Henry had suffered with a lame knee, and when he finally became too feeble to climb the stairs he asked me to find a place for him to live in a Catholic old-people's home. Often, I would visit him amidst the alien, clean, polished tile, the television sets, and the talking people. Henry would sit in a corner alone, motionless, his head on his chest, a shrunken figure completely remote and apparently frightened. He would barely glance at me and after a few visits I don't know if he even recognized me. Seemingly, he left his life behind in his room, for he died within a few months.
 
"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...."
 
What Nathan Lerner found were 15 volumes of a vast narrative work that Henry Darger began writing back in late adolescence. It consisted of 15,145 legal-sized pages, single-spaced on the typewriter. Its title was The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. That a barely educated, isolated boy could undertake this task is only the first mystery we have to confront in this bizarre tale. Dr. John M. MacGregor, whose The Discovery of the Art of the Insane (Princeton University Press, 1989) is a primary text, is now at work on a book-length monograph on Henry Darger. In an earlier essay, "In the Realms of the Unreal," he provides us with a clear encapsulation of the story: "The writing of The Realms, which began only two years after his escape from "the asylum," seems to represent the elaboration of continuing fantasies whose origin can be located in adolescence. Darger remained an emotional adolescent for the rest of his life. He managed, however, to function in low-level hospital jobs until his retirement at the age of seventy-one. Profoundly involved with religion, his only social activity consisted of compulsive churchgoing. He lived in rented rooms, ate in a nearby restaurant, worked, and attended Mass. Yet, in terms of meaningful human contact, he was completely isolated. In his entire life he appears to have had only one friend, William Schloder, who eventually moved away from Chicago. This permanent situation of almost complete emotional, intellectual, and creative starvation offered him not the slightest possibility of growth or development."
 
Darger wrote: "The scenes of the story, as its title indicates, lie among the nations of an unknown, or imaginary, world, or countries, with our earth as their moon, on an imaginary planet, a thousand times as large as our own world." And he said: "This description of the great war, and its following results, is perhaps the greatest ever written by an author, on the line of any fabulous war, that could ever be entitled, with such a name. The war lasted about four years and seven months, in this story, and the author of this book has taken over 11 years in writing out the graphic details, and has fought from day to day in order to win for the Christian side this long and bloody war." Apparently, John MacGregor has evidence that Darger as a boy read all he could find about the American Civil War. In The Realms, the battle is over the enslavement of children. One of the warring nations is Glandelinia whose violent attacks on children are monstrous and unendingly gory. It is opposed by the good nation of Abbiennia and the heroines leading the rebellion are seven Abbiennian princesses called the Vivian Girls (shades of the Dolly Sisters). Here is an example of what happens to multitudes of unfortunates for thousands of pages:
 
"The priests themselves were cut, hacked, and torn to pieces, and the children were frightfully massacred, about the prison yards, until their life-blood covered the streets. Everywhere there was a howling tumult. The poor children being intermingled in a howling sea of grey coats... Many of these poor little ones sank with dying cries, and soon there were formed a pile of corpses, and the streets began to run red. Fancy the yells of these wicked Glandelinians, their faces covered with sweat and blood, the fiercer shrieks of more women and children crying, 'Mercy, oh please have mercy,' but there was no mercy." There are floods and fires and natural catastrophes, page after page after page. Darger was almost a mute. If prompted by a neighbor in the street to speak, he would only say a few words about the weather. He kept notebooks filled with weather reports. It is known that in 1913 he witnessed the Easter Sunday tornado that completely destroyed the town of Countybrown, Illinois.
 
The style is curious and skewed. We can guess at a few sources: the Bible, Civil War battle reports, adventure thrillers for boys (Don Sturdy in the Tombs of Gold, that sort of thing) A character called Penrod suggests the prose of Booth Tarkington. One predicts that no one will ever read all the 15,145 pages leading to the final triumph of Good over Evil, except possibly Henry Darger's biographer, John MacGregor. It asks too much, like being made to listen to no music ever except Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, or being forced to sleep in the same bed with Senator Jesse Helms for fifty years. But, again, let us remember: The Realms was not created for you or me to read. It belonged only to Henry Darger.
 
What are clearly much more accessible to us are the 300 or so watercolors that Darger started doing in his room at 851 Webster Street in the 1930s to illustrate the text. The typing of The Realms had been completed at an earlier date. No one ever heard typing from his room. The paintings were small at first, made on standard-sized watercolor pads. Later he worked on newsprint and fastened the sheets together, creating mural-like narratives that could be read like scrolls, often two feet high by eight or ten feet wide. So, the self-taught outsider-writer, now becomes the self-taught outsider-artist. An artist, who drew the human figure so badly that he had to trace everything or add collage, embarks on a huge series of large watercolors absolutely crammed with figures!
 
There is conjecture that Henry Darger never went to an art museum, that everything he used to make art came from popular street culture, from the comic books, coloring books, game boards, newspapers, children's books, and magazines he brought back to his room. Somebody thinks they see a little Gauguin in his work. Where would he see Gauguin? In Life magazine? Did he ever go to the movies? It was a dime back in those days. If memory serves, Anthony Quinn played Gauguin in Lust for Life, but that's not early enough. Was it George Saunders in The Moon & Sixpence? It's difficult to get any handles. Kate Greenaway is somehow involved, and that he would have found in books. Her delicate, high, pastel palette would be important to Henry Darger. (Kate Greenaway started several artists on their way. She was Aubrey Beardsley's first love. Then he went on to Burne-Jones, Mantegna, and Whistler—and came out very much Aubrey Beardsley. I love what Miss Greenaway said to John Ruskin in 1896: "A great many people are now what they call modern.")
 
We don't even know if Henry Darger ever drank a beer or liked a drink. Even Catholics who go to Mass five times a day, as he sometimes did, have been known to indulge, faith and begorra! Living on the Near North Side, it's hard to think of even a recluse not going to Wrigley Field for an afternoon of sunshine in the bleachers. Did Hammerin' Hank Darger ever see Hammerin' Hank Aaron play long ball over the ivy walls? And if he went to Wrigley Field, he might have meandered into the cemetery nearby and stood in front of the tomb of Louis Sullivan. Wandering around and scavenging in Chicago's Loop, Darger would have often been at the intersection of State and Madison Streets and surely seen the wondrous metal ornamentation of the entrance pavilion to Carson Pirie Scott Department Store—Sullivan at his most masterful. Can we say that he never went up the steps to the Art Institute of Chicago? Street people often frequent museums and libraries and public buildings, if for no better reason than to get warm. I like to imagine Henry Darger standing in front of George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte." Many lessons about how to arrange horizontal compositions are there for the taking. There's Gauguin in the Art Institute too. And someone else who might have caught his eye was Charles Demuth, whose color is so sonorous and strange. And, to go just an obvious step farther along in this goose chase, there is a superb collection of Chinese and Japanese screens and wall paintings at the Art Institute. Rider of the Hale-Bopp comet, reader of the funny papers and collector of paper dolls, it may just be that Henry Darger knew much more than we think. He arranges armies of figures with unerring skill. He orchestrates with color as shimmering at times as Ravel in Daphnis & Chloe. Darger as Tar Baby—he don't say nuthin'.
 
It is a wild phantasmagoria: the ever-energetic Vivian Girls, the strangled and eviscerated, the menacing storm clouds with human faces, Shirley Temple, Little Annie Roonie, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tweety-Bird, and the amazing creatures called Blengiglomenean Serpents (Blengins for short). Darger writes: "Human Headed Roverines, called Rabona, which are the prettiest; Taporeans, which are the longest, some exceeding 8000 feet (very violent); Fairy Winged and Angel Winged Gazonians, both of which have butterfly wings; and the horribly ugly Dog and Cat Headed Crimacean Gazooks." There one of these friendly dragons said to be 45,000 feet long and to weigh 60,000 pounds. Darger concludes: "As far back as 1188, the creatures have shown a greater fondness towards children of all nations, as to exceed the love of any mother. As they have somehow knew of the existence of God, they feel sure that any man, no matter what nation he is in, who ill treats a little child, for whatever reason, is not only an enemy of children, but also an enemy of God. No man is safe in their presence who hurts a child." I sense a bit of the Land of Oz in all this exotic naming of beasts. And maybe the Blengins are Henry's personal guardian angels?
 
There is much conjecture over the battle scenes in which hordes of pre-pubescent girls are drawn with tiny male genitals and occasionally with rams' horns. Henry never saw the baby sister. John MacGregor remarks: "We must at least contemplate the possibility that he did not know of the physical difference." Whatever, it's "Chicks With Dicks," just what they like today in post-gender New York!
 
And much conjecture over the brutal sadism, crucifixions, burnings at the stake, beheadings, disembowelments of children in the paintings. John MacGregor tries to cope with this: "... One senses within Darger a potential for mass murder. It was, however, a potential defended against by his intense devotion, his absolute conviction of the existence and power of God. This conflict is at the heart of Darger's experience and of his writings, with the outcome invariably hanging in the balance. This is an alternate world powered by an overwhelming force... restrained." Dr. MacGregor has said more recently: "Psychologically, Darger was undoubtedly a serial killer. I don't think he acted, however, because if he'd ever started, he wouldn't have been able to stop. Instead he sublimated it into his art." John Wayne Gacey, another Catholic boy from further north in Chicago, did a little painting. And a little something else. Praise Henry Joseph Darger just for the wonders he did. R.I.P.
 
(Modern Painters, London, 1999)

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