The outsider

Last Updated 24 May 2014, 14:44 IST

Henry Darger’s story proves that there are many talented artists who remain outside the realm of the official art world, writes Giridhar Khasnis.

In 1930, Henry Darger (1892–1973) rented a second-floor room in a brick house in Chicago’s then-neglected North Side. He always addressed his benevolent landlord Nathan Lerner (1913–1997) as Mr Leonard.

An influential photographer and designer, Lerner became a guardian and a father figure to his poor and lonely tenant in dishevelled clothes and Scotch-taped glasses.

Darger occupied the rented room for more than 40 years.

In 1972, too weak to climb the two flights, the 80-year-old, badly crippled resident left his room for the last time, leaving all his possessions behind.

“What do you want me to do with the things in your room, Henry?” asked Lerner. “You can have them, Mr Leonard,” was the reply.

Darger was taken to St Augustine’s Home for the Aged at Sheffield, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.

There he spent the last six months of his life, and died on April 13, 1973 — one day after his 81st birthday.

He received a pauper’s burial; and his tombstone read: Henry Darger, 1892-1973, Artist, Protector of Children.

Realms of the unreal

After Darger left his house on the snowy day in November 1972, Lerner enlisted his neighbour — a young student named David Berglund — to empty the abandoned room and clean it.

On entering, they found the room to be packed from floor to ceiling with an inconceivable quantity of odd things: hundreds of empty bottles, scores of broken eyeglasses, old and mismatched shoes, boxes full of twine and smelly rubber bands, stacks of telephone directories, piles of newspapers and magazines, packets of maple syrup, and so on.

On finding that there was nothing in the room but garbage, they decided to throw all the things out.

As they struggled to clear out the debris, they discovered something unusual and extraordinary: an eight-volume autobiography of Darger in 5,084 handwritten pages titled The History of My Life.

Then, as they opened some old trunks, an even more spectacular breakthrough awaited the dumbstruck excavators.

It was the manuscript of a fantasy novel with a long title: 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 — made up of more than 15,000 pages in 10 volumes of typed single-spaced manuscript!

That was not all. Complementing the incredibly complex and puzzling novel, there were several hundred astonishing, original illustrations, collages and water colour paintings of varying sizes; some of them were over 12 feet long and painted on both sides.

Colourful, playful and well composed, they also held a darker side with the depiction of violent and brutal scenes of torture and murder.

The main protagonists — little girls, many naked, some bearing ram horns, clubbed tails, tiny penises and enormous butterfly wings — were shown to be surrounded by dragon-like creatures or being butchered by soldiers.

Stunned by the sheer accident of the extraordinary discovery, Berglund met Darger as he lay dying at St Augustine’s Home. His recollection of the meeting was: “I came in and said, ‘Henry, all that work that you were doing in your room... it is beautiful’.

He looked at me like I’d sucker-punched him and said, ‘It’s too late now. It belongs to Mr Lerner’.”

Troubled life

Darger’s incredible life story had begun with a traumatic childhood. When he was four, his mother died giving birth to a baby girl (whom he never met, as she was put up for adoption).

When he was eight, his father was crippled and put up in an asylum.

The young Darger himself was sent to the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy, where he built quite a reputation by supposedly bullying other children, slashing a nun with a knife, stealing wooden crates and accidentally setting a house on fire.

At the age of 12, he was caught masturbating in public and was sent to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, where more instances of sexual predation and abuse followed.

After several failed attempts, he escaped from the Asylum and walked 165 miles to reach Chicago, where he managed to find employment as a janitor at a hospital.

For the next 50 years, he supported himself through menial employment of washing dishes, cleaning latrines and rolling gauze bandages in hospitals.

He was forced to retire due to illness in November 1963; thereafter, he barely managed to survive on Social Security.

Darger was known to be a reclusive and troubled man with strange habits.

A social non-entity, he rarely spoke to anyone. He would be seen poking through the trash in the streets, collecting a bewildering array of odd things and carrying them to his room. |

At night, he would make raucous conversations — with himself — in different voices and dialects.

He would be heard arguing with God, sing blasphemous songs and curse Him for denying him of any chance at happiness. He would also go to church, often four times on a single day.

Lerner and his wife Kiyoko not only tolerated him, but were even sympathetic towards their weird but harmless tenant.

They kept the rent low and forgave him for his lapses in payment; they also endured his irksome demeanour and exasperating habits, which included the increasingly strange and aggressive noises he made at night.

Posthumous recognition

After his death, Darger went on to become one of the greatest ‘outsider’ artists of the 20th century!

Today, he is hailed as a self-taught genius and has acquired almost van-Gogh-like mythic stature. Exhibited and collected worldwide, his work has inspired many in the creation of paintings, poetry, music, and works in theatre, dance and opera.

His life story has been encapsulated into several well-researched biographical books published from time to time.

In the Realms of the Unreal (2004 / 81 minutes), a documentary on Darger’s art and life by Jessica Yu, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival (2004) and Prime Time Emmy (2006).

“This is just great art,” says curator Brooke Anderson, speaking of Darger’s work. “You just kind of sit in awe of his intuitive talent, the powerful composition and the colour.

Then we have this wild make-believe world that he enters, that makes it even more fantastic. It’s a classic tale. War, love, fighting, it’s all present in there.”

Museum director and curator Stephen Prokopoff observes that “Darger’s major compositions bring together massive casts of characters in ways that surely would have gladdened the heart of a Cecil B DeMille...”

Notwithstanding all the posthumous acclaim and recognition, Darger remains an enigma; the exact motivations for his extraordinary work and his own expectations from it remain great mysteries to this day.

“The tragedy of Henry Darger’s life isn’t that he belonged to an oppressed class,” writes Steve Danziger, managing editor of Fiction magazine. “It’s that he didn’t belong anywhere.”

Darger’s room, where he secretively and steadfastly pursued his literary and artistic interests anonymously, was dismantled in 2000.

(Published 24 May 2014, 14:43 IST)

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