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Henry Darger: Outsider Artist

Updated on December 9, 2009

Nobody knew that while he was living, Henry Darger, the reclusive hospital janitor who barely spoke to anyone and lived on $25 a week, was writing a 15,000 page novel, illustrating it with some of the most beautiful art of the 20th century. He is an unwaveringly elusive figure; it is unknown whether his last name was pronounced with a hard or soft "g," and only 3 pictures of him remain. Yet upon his death, his landlords entered his apartment and found the result of an immense creative force that had guided him his entire life and filled his solitary hours-The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

Darger was born in 1892 in Chicago and had a difficult childhood, which must be noted to understand his later work. His mother died when he was four and his sister was given up for adoption. His father taught him to read, allowing him to skip two grades in school, but eventually became ill, and Darger was placed in a Catholic boys home in Lincoln, Illinois. At the home, the intelligent but misunderstood Darger had a penchant for making noises with his mouth, which eventually led to his expulsion and institutionalization in an asylum for children. Here he endured punishments and abuse, and attempted to escape several times. His father died without Darger seeing him again.

At the age of 17, Darger moved to Chicago and took a job as a janitor in a Catholic hospital; his occupation until his death. It was here that he began his masterpiece, which would consume his entire life.

Perhaps because of the pain he endured as a child, Darger was obsessed with the protection and care of children, even discussing the foundation a "Children's Protective Society" that would put such children up for adoption to loving families with his only friend, William Shloder. This impetus to protect the young and innocent comes forth in his work.

In the Realms of the Unreal tells the story of a child slave rebellion that occurs on a nearby planet, and the Christian nation of Abbieannia that comes to aid the rebelling slaves. The stars are the Vivian girls, seven princesses who feature heavily in each battle and scene; they are strong and fearless and undefeatable.

Darger was obsessive and kept copious logs of the many characters of his story and whether they were killed or captured in battle. Many of the paintings depict horrendous tortures and violent acts. Darger erected a complex mythology-not unlike Tolkein-surrounding the world, consisting of winged beasts that often defended the children. Darger himself was featured in his own work, as a famous child protector on Earth who was much discussed by his characters as a hero.

A completely self-taught artist, much of his imagery is a mix of painting, collage, tracing, and drawing. On his small salary, he would spend $3 on a singe photo enlargement to create his vision accurately. He read every newspaper every day, and would be seen collecting old magazines and newspapers on the street; what was considered a crazy man gathering trash was actually him establishing a huge inventory of images from which to render his art. Much of his imagery is unusual, and without knowing his story, could almost seen perverse. The children are often naked, and often the girls are drawn with male genitalia. It is unknown why he did this, but is speculated that, in his reclusion and unusual world perspective, he just didn't know the difference between men and women; that he knew what he had and assumed all people were built the same.

Darger attended multiple masses each day, but struggled with God throughout his life. He applied several times to adopt a child through the Catholic church and was repeatedly denied. His autobiography describes many of his theological struggles.

Upon his death in 1973, his landlords, a painter and a musician, discovered his work and immediately recognized its merit in composition and captivating visual effects. They personally have worked to publicize his work, and his paintings are now among the highest priced of all self-taught artists.

In 2004, an excellent documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal, chronicled his life and displayed many of his paintings. It is said that his novel, at 15,145 pages, is among the longest ever written.


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    • gracewood profile image

      gracewood 7 years ago from USA

      i enjoyed learning more about outsider art and consider my art to be naive and am self taught sheila of gracewood

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      This is an amazing and fascinating story. I am very interested in outsider art. Hope you won't mind that I link this Hub to mine on Helen Martins of the Owl House fame?

      Love and peace