What follows is a research paper I originally published on March 2nd, 2011. During my graduate studies, I focused on artists and writers who had developed incredible imaginary worlds, this of course included the fantastic world and works of Henry Darger. Over the years I was delighted to learn that this paper has proven useful to other scholars, as it has been included in the works cited of numerous research papers and essays. I have decided to republish this piece with the hopes that it will remain accessible for all to learn from and enjoy.
The writings, collages, drawings and paintings of Henry Darger have amazed viewers all over the world. His artwork explodes with color, patterns, landscapes, fantastic creatures, epic battles, evil Glandalinian soldiers and the brave Vivian Girl Princesses. Darger captured his world through a lifetime of art making and writing. He called his world the Realms of the Unreal. He produced a novel of over 15,000 typed pages and approximately 300 illustrations. Writing and art-making allowed Darger the freedom to express his views on issues such as: injustices against children, his relationship with God and the importance of protecting childhood innocence.
Darger’s novel focused on a team of heroines who fought against child slavery in the Realms, they were called the Vivian Girls. Darger collected countless photo clippings of children from newspapers, and used them as drawing references. Darger constructed beautiful landscapes for the girls to frolic in and created creatures to protect the girls in battle. His scroll paintings are known for their rhythmic patterns, unique narrative quality and intriguing compositions. Near the end of his life, Darger’s work was discovered, prior to this no one (except God, the Vivian Girls and Darger) knew.
Today Darger’s work can be found in museums and galleries, and although his work is deemed popular and a “hot” commodity, the Realms paintings still haven’t been determined as art or non art. “””I can’t get myself unstuck from an assumption about the importance of intent in art. Especially intent with regard to communicating…this assumption has led me to conclude that the work of Henry Darger… is not “Art” because…he had no intention of ever showing it to anyone, meaning it was not created with the intent of communicating anything with anyone, and that then made it something other than “Art.” – Ed Winkleman, New York Art Dealer and owner of Winkleman Gallery. (1)
Winkleman along with many others in the art world often determine whether something is “Art” (with a capital “A”) by looking at the artist’s intent to communicate to an audience. Thus, the lack of an outside audience is often used to support the idea that Darger’s work is not “Art”. Through an exploration of Darger’s writings, artwork and life history, this essay will identify the audience that he intended to reach. God, the Vivian Girls and Darger’s trauma related identities, are all members of his audience.
At the age of four Darger’s mother died while giving birth to his sister. Darger never met his sister who was promptly given up for adoption. Darger was an advanced level reader and enjoyed studying civil war history. Although he was rather intelligent, Darger was known for his violent tendencies. As a child, Darger was caught attacking a female student and later on, a teacher. Due to his unmanageable behavior and his father illness, at the age of eight, Darger’s father relinquished him to the Mission of Our lady of Mercy Boys Home.
Soon after Darger arrived at the Mercy Boys home, he was diagnosed as a self abuser (a common term for masturbatory behavior) and transferred to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln. The conditions at this institution were terrible. A child found ravaged by rats, the doctor who died from self-castration, and the use of inmate corpses in anatomy lessons, are just three examples of what life was like at the asylum. The institution also acted as a work farm, children worked without pay, and received severe punishments if they rebelled. Darger attempted to escape twice, once he was lassoed and forced to run all the way home, the second time he hopped a train to Decatur and walked to Chicago.
After his time in the asylum, Henry worked as an employee (janitor, dishwasher and bandage roller) for various Catholic institutions in the Chicago area. Darger’s stories and artwork allowed him to reflect upon his past, explore his feelings, and transform his trauma into something manageable. In from his young adult years to his 80th birthday Darger created hundreds of paintings, drawings, collages, an auto-biography, the book Crazy House, a 10 year weather journal and a 15 volume book (totaling over 15,000 pages) 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.
Darger’s 15 volume novel describes the epic battle between the famous Vivian Princess Girls (Violet, Joice, Jennie, Catherine, Hettie, Daisy and Evangeline), the Catholic Nations (Abbieannia, Angelinia, Abyssinkile, Protestentia and Calverinia), and the Blengiglomenean Serpents (who are also known as the Blengins) in a war against the Glandelinians (the fallen Catholics who enslave and torture children). The war in this story lasts four years and seven months (roughly battled between 1910 and 1917) and follows a similar outline to the events in WWI.
Darger used his art and stories to empower himself and to organize his thoughts and feelings about his past. This technique of self soothing is similar to many forms of art therapy used today. Psychologists have found that art therapy is beneficial for children and adults who are victims of post traumatic stress disorder. Darger’s past history of abandonment and the trauma he endured at the asylum may have caused him to have PTSD. Furthermore, studies have shown that art based therapies are a successful tool to work towards recovery when it is not advisable or possible for a patient to express their traumatic issues verbally. These studies have found that art therapy is a unique form of cognitive and emotional healing which can be used for a variety of trauma cases.
John MacGregor is a former psychotherapist, who is presently an art historian, helped to document and research the field of “outsider art”, a genre that Darger’s work is often placed in. MacGregor believed that Darger was able to achieve a psychic split within his mind through his art. Just as post traumatic stress can cause patients to develop dissociative identity disorder (a condition in which a person displays multiple distinct identities). Darger had created himself a life as: Darger the laborer, Penrod the secret brother of the Vivian Girls, Colonel Henry Darger the Vivian Girls’ protector, and Darger the writer and artist who reigned his creative powers over his own paracosm.
Another one of his identities was Darger the Catholic. To Darger, God was not a mere concept or idea; to Darger, God was a being that lorded him. Darger’s life long relationship with the Catholic church could be responsible for this, since Catholic institutions had housed him, rejected him or employed him. Although Darger often argued with God or cursed him, he attended up to five masses a day. Darger’s fluctuating relationship with God as a savior and the a unresponsive heavenly father influenced his work deeply. Through his novel “The Realms” Darger argued and bargained with God. Thus, using the popular notion that “Art” is defined by the intent of an artist to create work for an outside audience, Darger had one. He made his work for God, not a God found within, but a God who was part of the outside world. A God who was judging and watching his every move. Darger would adjust story lines, bring torture to innocent characters or threaten the lives of the Christian armies in an attempt to sway God to respond to his needs.
In 1911, five year old Elsie Paroubek was kidnapped, strangled and murdered. Her body was found near a drainage canal in Chicago. Darger’s collection of magazine and newspaper clipped images of children included an image of Paroubek. During the same year, Darger’s photo of Paroubek went missing, he believed it was stolen from his work locker. Darger became upset over the missing photo and decided to transform Paroubek into a character for “The Realms”. He renamed her Annie Aronburg, she became the child martyr whose murder sparked the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger prayed to God for the return of his photo. He created an elaborate altar of Christian pictures and decorations to appease God. Although he attended mass and prayed at his altar the picture never returned. Over time Darger grew impatient and destroyed his altar.
In 1912 he wrote in his journal a threatening ultimatum to God. He stated that if the picture of Elsie was not returned by a certain date (he had pushed the deadline back a number of times, to give God more time to return the photo), he would turn the tide of the war against the Vivian Girls. A distressed and pained Darger wrote the following: “God is too hard on me, I will not bear it any longer”. Soon the lives of the Christian children and the Vivian Girls would take a terrible turn for the worst.
In Darger’s composition: “The Vivian Girl Princesses are forced to Witness the Frightening Murder Massacre of Children”, Darger carried out his threat to God. These horrific drawings may have been inspired by Darger’s anger at God’s refusal to return the Paroubek image. Others believe that these works may have been his reaction to the many rejected requests he had submitted to adopt a child from a Catholic Orphanage. In the picture above, the Glandelinians have nailed children to crosses and trees, in a pose similar to Jesus during his crucifixion. A Christian cross has been stabbed into the torso of a girl in blue, who is surrounded by two girls who have been gutted. By mixing children book style illustration and twisted adult themes Darger sucessfully produces a series of horrific and eerie compositions. He plays with the iconography of children’s ads, biblical art and the illustrations from Frank L. Baum’s Oz books. These battle scenes, along with his written records of threatening God, help the viewer understand how Darger’s God was an outside audience member, for whom Darger created work for, in hopes that it would cause God to respond to Darger’s needs.
Henry once wrote the following: “It has been a comfort to me to sit and watch the Vivian girl princesses, their graceful ways, their beauty and strangeness, have helped me to understand the mystery in little girls which all the books about them cannot make clear… they did love me and I loved them.” For him, these girls were his children, Darger used his imagination to compensate for what was lacking in his life. After many failed adoption attempts, it seems that Henry focused his attention on the Vivian Girls. In the painting titled “At Jennie Richee. Have thrilling time while with bombshells bursting all around. Branch of Aronburg Run.” Darger captures the brave, heroic and charming characteristics of the Princesses that he had so admired. Even with the bombs dropping around the girls, the majority of their faces shine with determination , joy and confidence. The desire to capture the lives and stories of these girls became a great motivator in Henry Darger’s quest to enhance his skills as an artist. He would use pencil lead in the pupils of their eyes so it would shine with life, he practiced on countless sheets of paper attempting to draw these girls “just right”, even in his journal he would describe the correct way to capture the Vivian Girls likeness.
Darger’s relationship with the Vivian girls was not a normal writer to fictional character relationship, by creating two alter egos, Darger was able to join them within the pages of his novel. Colonel Henry Darger became a protector of the Vivian Girls (although he betrayed them once, this was during one of Darger’s spats with God). The other character he created was Penrod the timid and sweet secret brother of the Vivian Girls. Penrod was an artist and often discussed the difficulty and struggle of capturing his sisters’ beauty. As earlier quoted in the previous paragraph, Darger expresses his love and his journey with the Vivian Girls. He does not write this passage as an author would in response to a group of fictional characters, he writes this memoir about the Vivian Girls as if they were real. Darger’s sense of reality allowed for him to see the characters within his story as real people who he worked to serve as a historian of their great adventure.
As it was mentioned earlier, trauma can cause victims to psychically split themselves as a form of coping. It could be possible that Darger compartmentalized the various versions of his past self through the characters in his books and even sooth or resolve the issues of his past selves through his work. For example, Darger connected to his his younger self by naming “The Realms” villains after bullies from both school days and the asylum. During his time in the Catholic boys home he was punished by the teacher for making strange noises during class (now, many psychologists think he may have had Tourette syndrome) and harassed by students who found him odd. Through his painting titled: “The Vivian girls seek refuge in a cave and scare the Glandelinians by making noises” he is able to justify the past actions of his childhood self. Furthermore, by creating his paracosm, Darger could organize his emotions in a manageable fashion, his anger towards God could be psychically packaged into the souls of evil Glandelinians, while the innocence of his childhood could be safely held within the hearts of the Vivian Girls. The Darger who survived the horrors of the asylum can safely reflect upon his experiences through images such as the “The Vivian Girl Princesses are forced to Witness the Frightening Murder Massacre of Children”. Also, the Darger who lost his mother finds comfort in the Blengins (the serpents who are more loving to children than a child’s own mother) while the Darger who never knew his little sister, can become Penrod and enjoy all seven beautiful sisters forever.
If “Art” is defined as work that is created with the intent of showing it to an audience, Henry qualifies. Without his relationship with God, he may not have been compelled to create this body of work, due to the fact that he used his art and writing to communicate with God. Furthermore, through his ability to channel his alter egos, he could serve the Vivian Girl audience as Penrod, using his artistic skills to please them. It could be inferred that the very drawings within the book are the actual works that Penrod made for his sisters. Beyond God and the Vivian Girls, Henry may have had various selves within him due to trauma inflicted upon him in his childhood. His creative work reached out to his inner selves and allowed for him to both soothe and empower the various versions of his past and psychically split self, from the mischievous child to the angry old man who fought with God.
The classification of what is and isn’t “Art” is something that will continue to be discussed, debated and re-examined as long as “Art” continues to exist. The treasure of Darger’s work lies not only in his mysterious motivations, beautiful artwork and amazing tales, but in its ability to make the art world continue to question how it defines, views and understands “Art”.
(1) Full Quote: “Being the stubborn loggerhead I am, I can’t get myself unstuck from an assumption about the importance of intent in art. Especially intent with regard to communicating.” “Taken to its logical extremes in our debate, however, this assumption has led me to conclude that the work of Henry Darger, for example, is not “Art” because (or so it’s been reported) he had no intention of ever showing it to anyone, meaning it was not created with the intent of communicating anything with anyone, and that then made it something other than “Art.” Taken from Ed Winkleman’s blog entry titled “Losing my Assumptions” from January 26th 2007.
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