In the world of Outsider Art, few artists are as well known as Henry Darger.
From the genre’s origins in the halls of insane asylums, Outsider artists are primarily outliers. Mentally ill, developmentally delayed, and marginalized, Darger’s life and work are fascinating.
We’ll explore the unreal world of Henry Darger and discover the motivation behind his disturbing and beautiful work.
Let’s check it out!
Henry Darger’s Story
Henry Darger lived his whole life in obscurity. Unremarkable until just before his death in 1973, he lived in Chicago, Illinois, his entire life.
As an adult, Henry wandered the streets of Chicago, picking up the pieces from other people’s lives. Back in his one-bedroom apartment, he crafted a world filled with children fighting an epic war.
What led him to create this fantasy world? Let’s look back at his life and see.
In mid-April 1892, Henry Darger came into the world. His mother died when he was four after the birth of a sister, but his father gave her up for adoption. Henry never knew where she ended up.
Darger later discovered he had two older siblings he never met either. Isolated from other children, he spent his childhood with his father until 1900, when Henry Darger Sr. moved into a home for the aged. Henry then went to a Catholic orphanage.
After infractions for bad behavior, authorities relocated him to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. His behavior included such things as being a smart aleck and masturbation. At the asylum, forced labor and severe punishments were regular occurrences.
Word of his father’s death reached him in 1908; he hadn’t seen him for eight years. After a failed attempt to escape the asylum in 1908, Darger finally made it out in 1909 and never returned. Henry’s godmother helped him find a job as a janitor, something he did until retirement in 1963.
Once Henry Darger reached adulthood, his life followed a regular pattern. After a short period in the U.S. Army during World War I, he returned to Chicago.
Each day he attended Mass, sometimes four or five services throughout the day. Henry walked the streets of Chicago, picking up newspapers, magazines, shoes, eyeglasses, and other discarded items. He exhibited these items in his apartment next to his artwork.
Darger had one close friend, William Schloeder, who corresponded with him for forty-eight years. Together, they dreamed of creating a society to protect neglected and abused children. Darger even tried to adopt a child but was unsuccessful.
Jim Elledge, Darger’s biographer, suggested that Schloeder and Darger were romantically involved. But other than that one relationship, Henry lived his whole life alone.
Darger worked at several hospitals as a janitor for the next forty-three years. His art consisted of collage and carbon-paper watercolors. The newspaper and magazine clippings he found served as inspiration and collage material for his art.
When the stairs to his second-floor apartment got too difficult to climb, he asked to move to a nursing home. His landlord, Nathan Lerner, arranged the move for him in 1972.
When Lerner cleaned the apartment, he found decades’ worth of debris from the streets all over the place. Under the trash lay thousands of pages of art. Instantly, Lerner recognized its importance.
Buried in the apartment was Henry Darger’s life’s work. Over 300 illustrations and a 15,000-page book called 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.
Beyond that hefty novel, Lerner discovered a 5,000-page sequel, memoir, and a weather journal.
Lerner visited Darger in the nursing home, but Henry was mostly catatonic by this point. Leaving behind his fantasy world destroyed his will to live. Darger came to life briefly when Lerner mentioned his book, just long enough to say “too late now.” After Henry died in 1973, Lerner and his wife Kiyoko took charge and began publicizing and sharing Darger’s work.
Tell Me More About Outsider Art
Outsider Art, inspired by French artist Jean Dubuffet’s art brut (raw art) concept, is work created by unschooled artists. Generally, these individuals are on the margins of society and aren’t part of the art world. They work from an internal impulse to create, not a promise of fame or fortune.
Since 1972, the term has come to include artists with some training, but usually, it speaks to self-taught creators. Outsider artists work in all mediums and mostly in isolation. They’re often mentally ill, developmentally delayed, inspired by religion or visions, and create their own style without reference to art history.
What Books Did Henry Darger Write?
In Darger’s apartment, Nathan Lerner and Kiyoko found several typewritten texts. Once he started typing the texts in the 1930s, Henry hand-bound the first few volumes. Three massive books make up the bulk of his artistic output.
In the Realms of the Unreal
In the Realms of the Unreal is the centerpiece of Darger’s fantasy world. It tells the story of the Vivian Girls, seven princesses who assist in overthrowing a society plagued with child slavery.
Glandelininans, the overlords, fight back using torture and violence to put down the rebellion. Darger created elaborate mythology for the book and filled it with magical realism.
Illustrations for the fifteen-volume book include traced images arranged in large panoramas. Some watercolors are as large as thirty feet wide, painted on both sides.
Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago
A companion to In the Realms of the Unreal, this book takes place during the same timeframe. Set in Chicago, it involves the seven Vivian sisters and a house possessed by demons.
The 10,000-page, handwritten book begins in 1939 with the deaths of several children. The sisters and their secret brother, Penrod, try to exorcise the evil ghosts from the Crazy House. That doesn’t work, so they try to do a Holy Mass in each room to scare the spirits away.
The History of My Life
Darger used this text, which he started in 1968, to trace his frustrations with life to his early childhood. Of the 5,000+ pages, only 206 deal with his early childhood.
After that, the rest of the book revolves around a tornado called “Sweetie Pie.” Weather fascinated Henry, and he kept a journal for years documenting climate events. In 1908, he witnessed a tornado, which inspired “Sweetie Pie.”
Are There Any Films About Darger?
Several films are available about Darger and his life. Each details his complex life and the impact his art had on Outsider Art and the world.
Revolutions of the Night
This film compiles new and found footage surrounding the discovery of Darger’s work in 1973. Placing his work within the neighborhood he spent his entire life, Revolutions of the Night shows reactions from neighbors, artists, landlords, and psychiatrists.
It also includes never before seen photographs and audio recordings of Darger. Filmmakers chart his early life and examine how Henry Darger transformed familiar locations into fantasy.
Not without controversy, the film explores his legacy and the challenges surrounding his violent, darkly sexual art.
In the Realms of the Unreal
Created by Academy Award winner Jessica Yu, In the Realms of the Unreal tells Darger’s story in a unique way. Well-known actors narrate the story of his parallel lives, and Yu treats his work in a new way.
Darger’s art comes to life in this documentary through animated scenes. Bringing the Vivan sisters into the realm of the real, this film is a must-see for Darger enthusiasts.
Darger’s Room 1973
This fascinating short film shot on location shortly after the discovery of Darger’s art is worth checking out. Coleen Fitzgibbon, a local filmmaker, tours the apartment at the invitation of Nathan Lerner.
Discover the hoarder turned artist in a new light with this intimate view of his environment. It’s easy to see how comics inspired In the Realms of the Unreal when you catch a glimpse of the scrapbooks left behind.
The Secret Life and Art of Henry Darger
PBS produced this eight-minute documentary examining the life and work of Darger. A playlist is also available showcasing the records in Henry’s collection and digital manuscripts of his work.
Where Can I See Some of Henry Darger’s Art?
Now one of the most prominent examples of Outsider Art, Darger’s work is housed primarily in Chicago and New York City. You can see and study his work in person at either of these two museums.
American Folk Art Museum
The American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) in New York City opened its Henry Darger Study Center in 2001. Home to the single largest repository of Darger originals, the American Folk Art Museum has more than forty-five pieces on view.
With a wide range of programming around America’s most famous Outsider, the AFAM includes images he hung on his walls, coloring books, and a birthday celebration.
Located on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, Intuit has a vast collection of Darger art and minutia. They house the Darger Room exhibit, a re-creation of the artist’s apartment, and examples of his artistic methods. Additionally, they offer a virtual tour of the exhibit online.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore more work from Outsider artists in our personal collection on Instagram at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating Folk and Outsider artists and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also offer pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when.
Death Brings Life to Henry Darger’s Art
Henry Darger lived a life of quiet desperation. Not surprisingly, his art received recognition only after his death.
His childhood experiences paved the way for creativity in his adult life. Darger’s artwork lives on and provides a glimpse into the isolated mind of a creative genius.
Are you familiar with Henry Darger’s art? Let us know in the comments below.