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Carl Hammer Gallery
Henry Darger was certainly no lover. Whether he was the unworldly bard for a world all of his own making, or a retiring, obsessive madman, is still very much open to debate. Raw facts are that Darger was born in 1892, perhaps in Brazil or Germany, and that, perhaps, he originally bore the surname, Dargarius. And when he died in 1972, he left behind a previously unsuspected "picaresque tale in 12 massive volumes composed of 19,000 pages of legal sized paper filled with single-spaced typing entitled 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." As commentator, Stephen Prokopoff, noted, this epic which appears to have been started in 1909, took more than eleven years to write in longhand. Prokopoff adds: "...in 1912, Darger began the task of typing the still incomplete manuscript."
Darger lived for 43 years in a second-floor room on Chicago's North Side, and when he died, his landlord, Chicago photographer, Nathan Lerner, found Darger's 15,145 page novel, as well as the accompanying illustrations -- Darger's art. Those circumstances are enough to call attention to Henry Darger's oeuvre, and, indeed, The Realms (for brevity) have a significant following. Darger's pursuit does provoke serious reflection: On the roles of biography -- the artist's sanity, talent, and society's conditional response; on the roles of an artist's intent, achievement, and the long-term judgement of result by others; on the expectations and functions -- the definition -- of art applied at a given time and in a particular culture.
Whether Darger's case belongs to psychology (and his viewers' to sociology) or it has its place with art and aesthetics (fair game for philosophers as well as art lovers) ultimately rests with the work. Upon first viewing, an immediate reflex is one of curiosity, even fascination -- And a sense of puzzlement; puzzlement about the work and one's own response. In the end, one feels the afternoon well spent; but remains uncertain why.
Certainly, The Realms fulfills most definitions of 'Outsider' art. Roger Cardinal, in "Toward an Outsider Aesthetic," asserted: "I believe that a paramount factor in the critical definition of the creative Outsider is that he or she should be possessed of an expressive impulse and should then externalize that impulse in an unmonitored way which defies conventional art-historical contextualization." (In The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture.) However, one aspect of art throughout history and in all times, is that an artist creates with some other person in mind as viewer, albeit if only God. Although Darger's work is seen to question aspects of his Roman Catholicism, and even divine benevolence itself, neither Darger's life history nor the fact that he created so enormous a work as The Realms necessarily qualifies it as art, at least in conventional terms. And The Realms does indeed defy convention. Most psychologists do note that obsessive behavior need not have a goal or intent . Psychologists search out acts and patterns -- none would claim to be psychics -- and here, all that is in the work. If at times, an artist colors the reception of his art, and, in all honesty, for many it sometimes seems so, artist and art are nonetheless distinct. We cannot now know what was in Darger's mind and, as art, it is the art which must be examined.
Jean Dubuffet in 1945 investigated madness and art, primarily in Swiss psychiatric hospitals, discovering Adolf Wolfli, among others; and Dubuffet later explored the collection of psychotic art made by Geneva psychiatrist, Professor Charles Ladame. Dubuffet founded the Foyer de l'Art Brut in 1947. 'Outsider' art was born. Stephen Prokopoff notes that Darger, at age 13, was diagnosed as feeble-minded, a doctor declaring: "Little Henry's heart is not in the right place." He had been uncontrollable at the Little Sisters of the Poor boys' home, which, after several attempts at fleeing, he eventually escaped in 1908. E.Tage Larson's "The Unrequited Henry Darger" cites current speculation that was he was in fact "functionally schizophrenic." He did find work at St. Joseph's Hospital, and for fifty years, he supported himself through menial employment. Darger's art, by those precedents, fits well as 'Outsider' art, and it does so in its execution as well, although in content, it is distinctly Henry Darger.
The Realms does not intend to impart itself to others, as in traditional arts and literature; nor is it a collective evolution as is myth. Much of Darger's art is meant as illustration to his hidden, internal life, The Realms, and although there are a number of isolated fantasy drawings, they too augment his introvert musings. It seems dubious that Darger produced his art with any other viewership in mind, although he did begin to transcribe them on typewriter. The Realms is very much his own self-created world. William Blake declared: "I must Create a World, or be enslav'd by another Man's," (Quoted by Joanne Cubbs in The Artist Outsider...), but even Blake sought out a receptive ear and eye among his fellow men. Expressive impulse presses outward and toward fellow creatures. It is this which distinguishes Hieronymous Bosch and William Blake in art, J.R.R.Tolkien or even H.P.Lovecraft in literature, from Henry Darger, and not just expertise.
Darger's expertise, in art and writing, is what might be expected, and underscores his self-preoccupation with The Realms, rather than with visual artistry or literary acts. He gathered images from comics, children's books, old newspapers; often had negatives taken at a drugstore to supply 11 by 14 inch copies, or reductions; employed cut-outs, tracing and repeated elements where a picture seemed to require it. Although a poor draughtsman, Darger filled not only standard drawing pads with pictures, but at times expanded to joined sheets 3 to 4 feet high and reaching 10 to 12 feet long. Economy of material forced him to use both sides of a sheet. Prokopoff, noting Darger's cramped quarters, concluded that he probably "worked in the manner of scroll painters -- one segment at a time."
There are multiple volume Science Fictions for which an author was so caught up in devising his own cosmos, outfitted down to the most minute detail, that he forgot to have any living going on in his creation. Darger at least fashions a tale, albeit in 15,145 pages and three volumes containing 300 illustrations. In The Realms, earth is the moon of a huge, unnamed planet, home to the Gladelinians, the enslavers of children, and the Christian Abbieannians, who ultimately force the former to relinquish their barbarism. The heroines, the seven Vivian sisters, who are Abbieannian princesses, adventure through mortification, enslavement, torture, but are often aided, as Prokopoff notes, "by a panoply of heroes, who are sometimes the author's alter-egos."
Darger's tale, and its art, is the crucial, only real topic; not the artist nor, necessarily, even the means by which he achieves his art. In The Realms, there are correspondences with literary fantasy, fairy tales and childrens' literature, visionary art, even battle genres and devotional imagery. But they are not consciously crafted nor directed in tandem with any external matrix of genre or aesthetic: They are an 'artless' art; a fact which has its benefits and its drawbacks.
Some of the strengths of Darger's work lies in a sound feel for general composition, and the marshalling of large ensembles in action. Here, Darger's repeated use of the same template or tracing for reiterated figures often adds to the overall scene. At times there is a 'chorus' effect -- adjacent figures guide a viewer's response to a neighboring focus (a device well studied by art historian, E.H.Gombrich). Elsewhere, as in the select battle scenes of 'High Art' tradition, several focal points of interest balance and collaborate within an image. Yet, in many more works, one finds a common and curious Darger trait: color scenes of innocent play appear alongside monochrome visions of torture.
Much of Henry Darger's artwork is characterized by an almost Baroque attention to visual activity throughout the image: active, turbulent, at times seething clouds; bending, stretching writhing plants and trees; gently rippling horizons. The artwork is essentially linework with overlying color added, and Darger's use of that color reflects the bright hues and filled contours of popular, commercial printing -- cartoons, juvenile literature, and advertising. These were, after all, his mentors in art. But, much as in folk art, the decorative sense here is strong. Darger does orchestrate his disparate source materials and reveals a good eye in doing so. But again, this is native skill, and not an intended aesthetic rhetoric.
It is regrettable that exhibitions of Darger's work must of necessity be limited. Three hundred illustrations to The Realms are a lot, and much of the work is now scattered -- The National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., has on permanent exhibit two of Darger's paintings: After Marcocino and At Julio Calleo, and many more have been sold to collectors. The exhibition currently at the Carl Hammer Gallery is fascinating, but it cannot convey the full impact of The Realms that Nathan Lerner surely felt at his initial discovery, when the work was together and entire.
There is a darker side to Darger's unreality, and it must be noted. Among the work displayed at the Carl Hammer Gallery, At Jennie Richee "A Sain Escape," with its pierced and crucified children, is indeed unnerving; and much the same can be said of At Jennie Richee, Have thrilling time fleeing through field of gutted bodies of children, also in this showing. Poet W.H.Auden, in his Introduction to Tales of Grimm and Anderson (Modern Library: 1952) observed: "Aggressive, destructive, sadistic impulses every child has and, on the whole, their symbolic verbal discharge seems to be rather a safety valve than an incitement to overt action." And Auden further, in acknowledging cases where a few children may be dangerously terrified by some tale, adds: "Often, however, this arises from the child having only heard the story once. Familiarity with the story by repetition turns the pain of fear into the pleasure of a fear faced and mastered."
There are 19,000 pages to The Realms.
One does not truly feel that Darger's work is 'escapism.' The elements of horror and violence, the level of action depicted, point more toward a working out of questions about his world. In this, The Realms, whether self-therapy or self-theology, does share some affinity with Fantasy and even Magic Realism. J.R.R. Tolkien, defending active fantasy before its critics, wrote: "Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the 'quisling' to the resistance of the patriot." (In "Tree and Leaf.") Darger's condition contributed to an already hard life.
Henry Darger's art recalls the mind of a child, albeit one with a precocious discipline of hand. That is not disparaging: There is a speculative curiosity and fancy which certainly many healthy adults retain to a greater or lesser degree (or else there would not be Fantasy, Science Fiction, Magic Realism...). And many children, in a peaceful setting, do exhibit a fascination with battles and violence -- presented, reported from elsewhere; or as mock scenarios in their own play. Children do pretend heroic roles; and most have an unmorbid curiosity about dead things. And school pads are filled yearly with fantastic, chimeric, or xenomorphic marginalia. These were one of the first impressions upon seeing Darger's "Head of Sasonian" Body and Wings "Poisonous Oceanic Blengin - Catherine Isles", which resembles the Wyvern of heraldry. The Sasonian is one of Darger's Blengiglomeneans (Blengins for short). They evoke dragons; some have butterfly wings; others seem quasi-human; but, much like guardian spirits, they exhibit protective concern for the Vivian girls in The Realms. Darger scholar, John M. MacGregor, reports that while at St. Joseph's Hospital, Darger roomed with a child murderer. (In E. Tage Larson's "The Unrequited Henry Darger.") However, much psychological speculation about Henry Darger might well be reduced by noting more about the behavior of actual children. None of this is to say that Darger thought of himself in those terms, but rather that he appears to have been at home within a child-like sensibility -- most truly himself, working out the ways of God, for the sake of Henry Darger. If so, then our study of his work may prove more valid than any direct response to it.
Psychologists such as Kay Redfield Jamison of John Hopkins University have demonstrated a higher incidence of mental illness among creative personalities, but many artists live well-adjusted lives, and a number have been highly successful. And many with mental illness have shown no inclination to create. Clearly, Romantic indulgence notwithstanding, neither mental illness nor biography necessarily define art.
I once suggested, in responding to art about the idea of art -- 'Meta-Art' -- that a category of 'Para-Art' might arise among the clever art historians and philosophers. Darger's case may well prove such a 'Para-Art': an activity ancillary to art proper; a source, like Charles Ladame's collection of psychotic art, for the study of primal human expressive urges and non-utilitarian needs. That in itself lends great value and interest to this current exhibition. Much of this art's fascination lies in its circumstance.
Transformational grammar, neurophysiology, psychology may all study what language is and how it is acquired, but they do not teach Anglo-Saxon, nor read "The Battle of Malden" in its original Saxon dialect... and perhaps acculturate a reader into a very different, ancient, and once widespread human view of the world (a world of Homer and the Vedic bards as well). Art is an activity, like speech and play, multifunctional and polyvalent, if not protean, but in all societies and periods, it expressed and shaped human needs, often broadened our humanity, refreshed apperception and perceiving, led the individual outward and abroad. If a society existed without it in some form, it's members would still assemble... both materials and themselves. But their nature would not be so open-ended, so fully human. One does not find this in Darger's severe solipsism.
Darger's seems a proto-art: a substitute: an impulse turned and thwarted: a grand and fascinating idiosyncracy, leading inward from the world outside; and where it leads is to a hurt and solitary man, a lone and single resident within a room in a very large city of walking masks. It tells us more about the need for art, and human intercourse, than it offers those expanding human expressions of being fully so. It fascinates...much as a child which tries to sing. But it is neither chord nor concert.
A visitor can go and see and judge by one's own score. Some may find Henry Darger an unsung Milton trapped in Schizophrenia; others may see a lunatic with imagination. But then, as Bruno Bettelheim, summing the fairy tale, folk tale and myth, once stated: "The unrealistic nature of these tales (which narrow-minded rationalists object to) is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tale's concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner processes taking place in an individual." The work of Henry Darger proves a different revelation to each visitor. One should go and see. "HENRY DARGER: Realms of the Unreal" will be on display at the Carl Hammer Gallery until November 11, 2000.
NOTE: Stephen Prokopoff's essay is at the Carl Hammer Gallery site: http://www.hammergallery.com/biographies/Darger_essay.htm . E.Tage Larsen's "The Unrequited Henry Darger" may be found at http://.users.rcn.com/outpost/darger/index.html , and further information and web links are available at http://www.henrydarger.tripod.com/where.htm--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture edited by Michael D. Hall, Eugene W. Metcalf,Jr., with Roger Cardinal (Smithsonian Institution Press: 1994). Another useful book is Outsider Art: Contesting Boundaries in Contemporary Culture edited by Vera L. Zolberg and Joni Maya Cherbo (Cambridge University Press: 1997). Of related interest may be: Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Vintage: 1977); "Tree and Leaf" in The Tolkien Reader (Ballantine: 1966); and, in particular, W.H.Auden's Introduction to Tales of Grimm and Anderson (Modern Library: 1952).