Henry Darger

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

When we told an artist friend of ours that we were going to write an article about Henry Darger to coincide with the new film based on his life's work recently screened at Sundance, he announced that Darger was an enemy of artists the world over - you couldn't make anything after you saw his stuff. In many ways this is true. The deeper you delve into Darger's unbelievable life story, the harder it is not to feel weak in the knees in the face of his breathtaking work on the one hand, and furious at the artworld's relentless courtship of the insane, the exploited, the helpless and the uncommunicative on the other. Despite Darger's obvious talent, the cult that has surrounded him is a perpetuation of the Romantic myth of the artist as an outsider, as someone who takes no part in any dialogue with society and prefers to devote himself completely to an intricate inner world over engaging in any critical debate regarding the world that surrounds him. While it also defies many normative definitions of sanity, the infatuation of the art world with the outsider artist seems to reflect a deep seated fear of the true social power of art, its ability to intermingle with the language of the everyday, to take part in commerce, to criticise and celebrate the world, a fear of all the challenges and stimuli that art has to offer. It is this fear that breeds an almost pathological admiration of those who cannot undertake any open communication with an audience. The temptation to peak into the secret worlds of artists like Darger is immense: who would say no to an opportunity to experience some of the schizoid madness of a brilliant painter from the safe distance of a museum show? But this temptation also incorporates a dangerous delegitimation of art and a marginalisation of all but the most solipsistic, obsessive preoccupations. It is only with these problems in mind that the strange case of Henry Darger, full of contradictions and complications, should be approached.

Darger was born in 1892 in Chicago, where he would spend most of his troubled life. His mother died less than four years later, and at 12, following a series of incidents at the Catholic orphanage where he was sent by his ailing father (mostly involving masturbation), he was sent to a mental institution for the young in Lincoln, Illinoi. The same institution would later face allegations of criminal neglect and abuse of its charges, one of whom was left for dead with burns from a boiling hot bath, another having died trying to castrate himself. In spite of the horrible treatment he was subjected to by the staff, who was fond of robbing the patients not only of their money, but also of their body parts post mortem for anatomy classes, the young Darger rather liked the place. When he finally did make his escape, following his fathers' death, it was mostly because he dreaded the approaching summer holiday, when the patients would be sent to the country. His third escape attempt landed him back in Chicago, where he managed to get a job as a janitor at a hospital. It was away from work, though, in his spare time, that he worked on what would become his life's work. Within the strict framework of an compulsive regime that incorporated seven visits to Church every day and infrequent trips to a restaurant that seems to have fed him for free, Darger managed to write and illustrate on vast sheets of paper fifteen thousand pages of his ever expanding literary saga, all dedicated to a single subject: the battle of the righteous Christian kingdoms led by the seven Vivian girls against the evil Glandelinian Kingdom and its practice of child slavery.

These kingdoms, fruits of his vivid, obsessive imagination, not only preoccupied Darger, day and night, they also contained his life. Darger inscribed in his work both his inner struggles with his faith and his fear of the adult world, against which he posed the innocent purity of the girls. Many of the recurring characters in this extensive tome are named after its author and the few people that made an impact on his isolated life, but it is easy to imagine that Darger identified with all his creations, from the cruel Glandelinian generals to the virtuous Vivian girls. Yet for all the bizarre situations and the unique style of The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, Darger invented nearly nothing. The twisted narratives, the excruciatingly detailed sadistic battle descriptions, the romantic plots and the adventurous exploits of his protagonists were more often than not copied verbatim from such classics as Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Wizard of Oz, plagiarised from historical accounts and newspaper clippings, mostly revolving around the Civil War but also regarding the matters of the day. These stories were meshed into a fictional narrative so convoluted and complicated that even Darger was unable to arrange it in any coherent order. Personal experiences also fed into the story: the loss of one of the newspaper photos that Darger so loved to collect, an image of a little girl who was the victim of a murder, became in the book a primary motivation in the Christians' war against the Glandelinians. The strange compositions that he drew and painted onto sheets of A4 paper, glued to one another to form huge canvases, were also constructed mainly of the daily comic strips he cut out of the newspaper and the children's colouring books he accumulated over the years. Darger would freely sample anything from high art to magazine ads, all traced onto paper with charcoal, then filled with rich watercolours, the fine detail subtly altered with a pencil.

It isn't entirely surprising that comics formed such an important influence for Darger. Although the roots of the enthusiasm for the primal art of the insane can be found in the European Avant Garde of the early twentieth century, many so called outsider artists found a niche for their work throughout the century outside the confines of the traditional museum. The simple graphic nature of illustrative art practices made comics particularly attractive for many post-war artists interested in popular culture, but at the same time Warhol and Lichtenstein were discovering their visual power, a new subculture was forming around comics that didn't need art critics to justify itself. Comic book art, which even in the wake of Superman's recurrent death in the past couple of decades continues to thrive, defined itself as a kind of outsider art form from the outset. Even in the heart of the superhero industry, it's possible to find active consumerism among obsessive fans who create their own private discourse without any recourse to formal definitions for the appraisal of the art of narrative drawing, into which Henry Darger poured a stream of original ideas that would not shame any contemporary graphic novelist. Darger abandoned the idea of using frames to delimit narrative blocks and constructed several scenes on one sheet of paper, scenes that invaded one another and spilled over to progress the plot as the eye encountered them, reminiscent of the medieval paintings whose elaborate story telling mechanisms now often elude us. These days, with magazines like the American Juxtapoz specialising in fringe art from tattooing to hot-rod airbrushing, and of course comics, there hardly seems to be any need for museums to curate work such as Darger's, and it is unlikely that Darger would have had to wait for his landlord to discover his work while cleaning up his flat after his death. Most probably he would be running his own website, devoted to his strange obsessions.

It is impossible to remain unmoved by Darger's impressive spreads. In recent years they have been shown in retrospectives in major museums in Europe and America and documented in several thick books, and now they have been animated as part of In the Realms of the Unreal, Jessica Yu's film tribute to Darger's art. The simple mechanism of copying, merging, duplication and modifying imagery is more relevant than ever now, in light of the visual richness of our media saturated world, and Darger succeeded in charting the way towards the creative use of ready made images with a strong thumbprint of his own. He bends the comic strips and historical battle descriptions to form elaborate snakes with the expertise of a balloon twister. Inside his illustrations hides a much wider range of emotions than what could be classified as madness, at times they are funny, absurd or ridiculous, often they are sadistically brutal. One of the paintings that most caught our attention at the retrospective of Darger's work at Berlin's Kunstwerk, titles something like "the girls trying to hide from the soldiers inside a large case, but alas, the case is made of glass", simultaneously invented and killed what Breton and the Surrealists, who celebrated the liberation of the imagination inherent in outsider art, or Art Brut, worked so hard to achieve: a sense of absurdity that was as beautiful tragic as it was cruel. Walking through the exhibition, we took pleasure in identifying regular characters, counting all seven girls and finding the soldiers, sometimes ageing Prussians leaning their Waterloo cannons, sometimes, jolly cowboys, and figuring out who was winning. Most often the soldiers would be chasing, capturing or hanging the girls, who rarely outsmarted the comic thugs. Dragons, both good and evil, girls with male genitalia and slave barracks with the appearance of concentration camps also filled the walls of the gallery.

Our detailed account of these paintings is a testimony both of their great impact and of our incurable thirst for such flecks of light from the romantic aura of genius losers (from Darger to the A-Team's Mad Murdock), brilliant crazies (insert name of Oscar nominated film of the year here) and poetic epileptics (Ian Curtis). There clearly exists an entire industry devoted to the packaging and marketing of this aura. From Van Gogh's ear (and anyone who's read his brother Theo's letters will know that Van Gogh was not only an educated, rather pleasant individual, but also understood the mechanisms of art and commerce quite well, far from the raving lunatic the films would have you think he was) to Homer Simpson's DiY Barbeque (sold at an insane price to Mr. Burns as "outsider art"), the history of modern art is formulated as a series of gestures of alienated exclusion, desperate challenges to an oppressive society. Like in any market, it's hard to satisfy the demand for 'the real deal', authentic gestures of otherness and an artistic message untainted by self-consciousness, critical distance or irony. Collectors will pay obscene sums for art by schizophrenics, homeless people or just uneducated amateurs who've never heard of Jeff Koons, art that is culled by dealers who often frequent mental wards looking for the next big things in the field. After death, mental illness is almost certainly the most lucrative asset an artist can have.

Another exhibition that's toured the world in the past few years is Jim Shaw's collection of amateur art amassed from garage sales across the USA, presented at the ICA about two years ago. Shaw's selection of trash features an impressive assortment of poetic kitsch taken out of its original context, a meeting place for the outlandishly bizarre and the crushingly mundane. Oil paintings of Def Leppard and portraits of space craft, drawings of clay pots done at a local community centre and fundamentalist Christian depictions of hell share wallspace under the auspices of a knowing stream of visitors, eager to reappraise these equally parts dire and inspired canvases as lost gems. Shaw's collection turns amateurism into a desirable trait in its own right and makes much contemporary gallery art seem like a pale imitation of the emotion that must have driven some fifteen year old kid from New Jersey to paint Iron Maiden getting pissed down the pub with Satan. Like the curators who put together the Henry Darger exhibition, Shaw's collection also tricks the viewer into adopting a naïve point of view, disregarding the real motivations of artists who crave no recognition or remuneration. It is doubtful that the painters included in "Thrift Store Paintings" could articulately discuss their choice of subject matter or technique, and that is their main limitation: the only thing outsider art can function as a critique of is the institutionalised art world. An indispensable critique, no doubt, something that professional artists can use to reflect on their own practice, but a limited one nonetheless. We have another friend who thinks the community channel is the most meaningful place on television, and that the eclecticism, bad taste and tediousness of low budget local programming pose an important challenge to more established art and media contexts. But this is a cheap and somewhat cowardly substitute for a more serious critique of the truly nasty qualities of the art industry, such as the fact that few artists make a living out of their chosen profession and that only the richest people, those of the Saatchi calibre, can accumulate an art collection to rival our record collection, or many artists' recourse to humourless gravitas and superficial pseudo-politics in an attempt to pander to public funding organisations. Darger's outsider art, Shaw's eccentrics and public access television of the American bizarro kind defines the centralised mainstream. But good art creates a multiplicity of such centres, a healthy pluralism that balances itself in patterns of growth and decay, not a twisted mirror image of a single power structure.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Art Brut, discovered by Breton in the lunatic asylums he worked at, collected by Picasso on trips to Africa, was hugely important: it expanded the West's perception of what could be considered art and opened the gates of the museum to work that would not find its way in otherwise. Today, this seemingly democratic move has become conservatism incarnate, set against an era in which the consumption of visual art takes place mostly outside of museums anyway, with no need for their authoritative approval. All that is left of Art Brut, or outsider art, is the need to define art as such an extreme form of individualism that it bears no relation to any form of communication. In practice, even if insanity is just a question of degree in all of us, for most of the inmates of psychiatric wards it is a hindrance, not a force of liberation. Suffice it to imagine what Darger could have done with his talent and creativity had he not felt obliged to talk to himself, document the minutest changes in the weather or avoid showers for an entire winter. The same obsessive behaviour that drove him to see his creation as a battle for his soul with God did allow him to construct a social and economic space for himself free of the limitations of self-consciousness, criticality and the need for such basic requirements as regular meals and hygiene, as well as the hours of work these things entail. But it also deprived him of any ability to control the way his art is consumed today: it is unclear whether his open address to his readers and the fact he left his estate to his landlord, a well-known designer, show that he was just waiting to be discovered, but it is very doubtful that his aspiration was to have his brutal moral visions hung in the designer living rooms of rich collectors who think the fact that he was a weirdo is really cool.