The works by the American artist and writer Henry Joseph Darger (1892 -1973) have become one of the most celebrated examples of Outsider Art. The extremity of his labor coupled with the innocence portrayed in what were meant-to-be-private artwork and subject matters invokes both awe and an uneasy feeling of voyeurism.
Henry Darger Biography
While living a rather dreary life, Darger compulsively created a fantasy world where goodness and courage battled with but won over betrayal and deceit that lurked in the hearts of mankind. In true “outsider art” fashion, his imaginary world was created for his personal satisfaction and without the influence of an art community.
Darger was a reclusive who lived and worked for over 40 years in a rented room in Chicago, Illinois, US. His main day job was janitor although Darger held several jobs in his lifetime. He’d been a farm laborer, soldier, dishwasher, and roller of gauze bandages. No one who would have met him during all those years would have thought of him as an artist, and certainly not one who had an affinity with children.
Henry Darger Childhood
Truth is, none ever really spoke to Darger, nor he to them. He truly was alone. When Darger was eight years old, his father put him in an orphanage. The father had become unable to care for his son and died soon after. Darger’s mother had already died many years earlier in childbirth of his baby sister.
Diagnosed as a disruptive troublemaker, Darger was passed around various mental institutions. He ended up in an asylum for ‘feeble-minded children’ in Lincoln, Illinois. Living in this institution meant hard labor on a state farm for Darger. He ran away at age 16 or 17 and went to Chicago. It seems that soon after, he started his 64-year-long pursuit of art.
The Discovery of Henry Darger’s Art
Then, just before he passed away at age 81, Darger’s artwork was discovered, and subsequently made public, by his landlord, the artist Nathan Lerner. Lerner immediately recognized something extraordinary in Darger’s ceiling-high piles of paintings, typed texts and scrap images.
In fact, it was the discovery of four unpublished manuscripts comprising more than 15,000 typed pages; more than three hundred watercolor paintings that are often longer than nine feet; and thousands of ephemera Darger collected and used in his artistic process. The fantasy manuscripts were called ‘The Story of the Vivian Girls’, in ‘What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, ‘of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm’, and ‘Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion’.
Drager’s Outsider Art & Methods of Production
Darger was a truly self-taught artist who developed his own art making methods and techniques to tell his story in detailed scenarios. He combined cut-outs from scrap images of young girls he collected with his own tracings, copies, and paintings. He created layered and collaged compositions that grew into 12-foot canvases. The collages were to illustrated the equally-layered and extravagant text.
He did not trust his own ability to draw. So, he collected and developed a series of poses of his characters ~ an image bank he could use over and over again. While obviously a man of simple means, he used, for him outrageously expensive, photocopying techniques as early as in the 1940s. He would use these copies and enlargements of magazine clippings to trace them onto paper. Afterwards he would join the panels together to form large horizontal panels, then coloring them with watercolor.
Darger’s work is a highly complex hybrid of a nearly incomprehensible narrative revolving around an apocalyptic war between young girls and an army of brutal soldiers. The private universe created by Darger is filled with mythology and symbolism. It includes maps, flags, fantasy creatures, songs, and graphic violence. It also contains many vibrant flowers and happy, innocent girls.
Documentary of Henry Darger’s Outsider Life & Art
*** POST UPDATE: these videos had to be removed because of a copyright dispute. ***
This is a 12-part documentary (12 clips of 5-7 minutes) which features and discusses the art and the life of Henry Darger.