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by Michael Bonesteel
Butterfly-winged maidens with ram's-horns, horses leaping left and right, child-warriors running, leaping, shooting, falling; magnificent cumulus clouds and threatening thunderstorms; children fleeing before fire and hail, enemy Glandelinians in the guise of Civil War soldiers and Wild West cowboys... Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings leads one on an expedition through the images and text of the detailed, moving and sometimes disturbing private fantasy realm which was the life-work of Chicago artist Henry Darger: a self-taught, self-contained artist and writer, wholly reclusive, who from 1931 until his death in 1973 lived in a one-room apartment in Chicago's North Side, sparing all his off-work hours to write, type, and illustrate his 15,000 page epic, In the Realms of the Unreal -- never meant for publication or display, and discovered only after his death. Art critic Michael Bonesteel and editor Christopher Lyons combine to produce a hefty full-color volume, with page after page of Darger's artwork and prose. Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings brims with interest and imagination for the Darger fan and the casual reader.
Michael Bonesteel's introduction, "Henry Darger: Author, Artist, Sorry Saint, Protector of Children," enhances the book with its information and spirit. Bonesteel explores a variety of topics, and provides a great many jumping-off points the reader may use in examining the work which follows. Biographical information, an analysis of Darger's placement as an Outsider Artist, clues as to the thoughts and resources behind the genius, and Darger's working methods and how they varied over time are just a few of the varied topics Bonesteel discusses. Bonesteel is Darger's champion, and his active enthusiasm shows in his writing. Some critics have lumped Darger in with "insane" artists, or, as in the case of Dr. John M. MacGregor, speculated that "Darger's psyche is arguably the mind of a serial killer." Bonesteel invites the reader to view Darger as a complex character, worthy of close and unusual study: a perpetual child who digested literature, contemporary events, personal tragedy, and the popular culture around him, and turned them into "a luminous and bewildering hybrid of prose and art, history and fantasy, unfettered childhood bliss and unremitting psychological torment."
Following the introduction, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings lays on with a lavish hand great dollops of text and innumerable illustrations from In the Realms of the Unreal, depicting and describing the heroic battle of Good and Evil as represented by the seven angelic Vivian Girls and the child-enslaving Glandelinian nation (and a cast of thousands). Commingled throughout the volume, approximately 114 of Darger's artworks and 15 lengthy selections from his writings are featured in its 256 pages -- and not just 256 pages, but 256 landscape-oriented, 10-3/8" x 9-3/8" pages. When opened, they spread to a generous 20-3/4" width, the better to display Darger's collage works, many of which are, in original size, over eight feet long.
The incredible artwork steals the show in this book, as well it should. Color and images roll off the amply-sized pages with the uncanny rhythm and repetition that makes Darger's work so fascinating -- a lyrical repetition of figures that makes a certain visual sense. His use of repetition creates tension and energy -- springing, pressed tightly, released. Darger may have "lifted" his images via tracing from newspaper images, syndicated comic strips, coloring books and the like, but by the time they were filtered through his artistic perception (often increased or decreased in size), they became utterly his own. Nearly every page has a picture, sometimes several -- sometimes sharing space with text, but as often as not, given over to a whole page by itself, or spreading across two facing pages. The majority of the selected works include the long scroll-like collages for which Darger is famous. They show off Darger's skill at composition, his particularly realistic cloud and weather portraits, and his amazing use of color. There are also smaller compositions, and individual illustrations of flags, creatures, and characters. The book's reproductions are a superb showcase for Darger's use of color, from the jellybean-bright to the utterly ominous. One is tempted to pick one's favorites... and have them framed.
As Bonesteel points out, one can only speculate as to why Darger endowed most of his girl-warriors with tiny, simply-sketched penises -- which same physical feature might provide a surprise for the casual picker-up of the book, who might also wish to be forewarned that several of Darger's more disturbing illustrations have been included, including wholesale evisceration, torture, throttlings and violence. This is not necessarily a book to give your maiden aunt or leave lying about on the coffee table.
Of the 18 featured selections of Darger's writing, 15 are excerpted from Realms, which Darger appears to have begun in 1909, and began committing to typed format in 1912. These are grouped by topic and arranged to flow in a general story-telling sense. They include such chapters as "The Golden Age Before the War," "The Coming Storm," "Child Slaves," "Penrod and the Rattlesnake Boy," "Conflagration!," "Thrilling Adventures in the Cavern," "The Great Aronberg Mystery" and more. Most of the chapters are involved with action, suspense, plots and escapes; some, like "What are Blengiglomenean Serpents?," are more expository, Darger's details on the stage-setting of the story. It's a bit like reading an allegory of World War II written as one of J.R.R. Tolkien's "supporting" books (e.g. The Silmarillion) with the strong, peculiar innocence of L. Frank Baum (of Oz fame). Where Tolkien applied historic myth, Darger used contemporary "myth," borrowing freely from popular characters, public figures, news, and fiction of his time. He was well read; his favorite authors included Charles Dickens, Baum, John Milton's Paradise Lost. Intriguingly, he also cast himself liberally in several "Henry Darger" roles on both sides of the Glandeco-Angelinian lines. Realms was more than just Darger's life's work -- it was his life.
As Bonesteel notes, the epic pages of Realms are more "a succession of ripping yarns" than a seamlessly plotted book; hence, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings works well in its choice to use thematically grouped excerpts to give a taste of the story. The key is to enjoy the individual sections without demanding too much tightly-tied plot, although the grouping of the excerpts does bring some closure to the story. Much of the adventure is thrilling ("Penrod and the Rattlesnake Boy" is a delight), but again, the reader should be forewarned: toward the end, violent and realistic descriptions are representative of Darger's darker fantasy side, his ability to form endless descriptions of sadistic treatment, torture, and grim, hideous death.
The final three writing selections are more pedestrian excerpts from "The History of my Life," "Book of Weather Reports," and selections from Darger's diary. Here one can see glimpses of the man behind the cosmic fantasy.
Physically, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings is a large, handsome book. A matte black cover with a colorful, glossy detail of the Vivian Girls (on the front) and a Crimecian Gazoonian Venemous Calverinia (on the back) hints at the mystery, innocence, drama and fantasy within. The dimensions, described above, present a generous expanse on which to reproduce Darger's mural-sized works, and just to gild the lily there are two foldouts. An appealing serif font makes for easy reading. As noted above, the color reproductions are of high quality and leap out at the eye: the delicious, sometimes springtime, sometimes dark and gloomy, always vivid compositions. As a small critique, one might have wanted a photo -- even a small one -- of Bonesteel himself, if only to see the man whose voice lends us the foundation through which to experience Darger's work.
By itself, Darger's artwork and prose would make a lavish page-turner. With the addition of Michael Bonesteel's introduction (and its photos), the reader has more to work with, more material for thought and interpretation. Darger is an intriguing subject: his copious output, his dreadful childhood, the questions of his sanity, his undeniable mastery of composition -- especially as a wholly self-taught artist, wholly reclusive, with no recourse to salons or the society of fellow artists. Artists (and others) wishing to feed a fascination with the inner workings of other artists will enjoy flipping between the introduction's analysis and the various compositions mentioned by name. Writers too will have much to plumb, as Darger is as much a wordsmith as a wielder of the paintbrush and pen. Fans looking for a new epic fantasy may enjoy picking up the book as a lavishly illustrated fiction work. And, of course, Realms aficionados themselves will enjoy it -- for in the twenty-five years since his death, and its discovery, Darger's visual/textual work has developed its own following. As of this writing, its most recent offering has been a play, Jennie Richee, which previewed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago's Ridge Theatre on Feb 1, 2001. As an additional note, in October 2000, an exhibition of Henry Darger's work, Henry Darger: Realms of the Unreal was held at Chicago's Carl Hammer Gallery and was reviewed by ArtScope.net.
Rounding out the ram's-horned maidens and bright fantasy illustrations are a few curiously moving photos of Darger's real-life apartment workspace and the big, old, hand-typed copies of his works. They are mutely eloquent as to the solitariness of Darger's vision. The child in all of us can empathize with such wholesale retreat into fantasy -- and any artist, or author, can sympathize with the endless solitary hours before the canvas or typewriter, bringing one's private vision into being. Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings presents that private vision in both picture and word, with excellent supporting narrative, in a full-color, deluxe edition.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be ordered through this site's Barnes and Noble link. Dr. John M. MacGregor is quoted from "Thoughts on the Question: Why Darger?" at http://outsider.art.org/newsletter/darger.html. Unless otherwise identified, other quotes are from Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings itself.