Saturday, February 25, 2006

the mystery of henry darger (1892-1972)

if henry had been rich, they might have called him "eccentric"; but since he was poor, he was "crazy." he was a chicago naitive who spent most of his childhood in an assylum for "peculiar" children in central illinois- but, at the age of 17 he escaped and walked the 162 miles back to his home town where he got a job as a janitor at a catholic hospital. he held this job for most of the remainder of his life. he rarely spoke to anyone and his only "friends" were his landlord and neighbor. when henry died at the age of 80, his landlord discovered a hidden life's work in henry's apartment: a 15,000 page, 12 volume, single-spaced, typewritten epic entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (pictured below as found). to accompany the epic, henry had painted hundreds upon hundreds of colorful paintings, collages and prints, some over ten feet long, that depict the strange world henry lived in.

his primary themes revolve around justice, faith, innocence, sensuality and heroism; yet offer an awkwardness that unsettles the viewer just enough to at once invite and repulse. for more of his paintings go here and here. view the documentary of his life and work if you get a chance.


nathan Barrett said...

I feel bad, no comments yet. I don't know what to say other than what a wierd guy but obviously he was committed. How about a little balance buddy?

pedro said...

Thanks for the posting, Phil.

Darger's story makes me think of all the alienated figures I ran into while living in Chicago. Many that I encountered on the streets were shysters and con men, but some were honest people who wee beset by circumstances beyond their control.

I also think of an old woman in my hometown that my brother had defended. She was mentally handicapped yet lived on her own. She led a lonely life, and lived perpetually in the past, but every once in a while, I caught a glimpse of a profound human spark. In different circumstances, would she have been able to lead a "normal" life?

The concept of outsider art is fascinating, especially since the term and circumstances imply that the artist will never receive recognition or financial reimbursment for their creativity. Darger certainly never did, but others are now buying and selling his artwork at market rates.

His artwork, and the snippets of his story that I've read in the links from your posting, remind me at once of late nineteenth and early twentieth century works offantasy such as Phantastes and Lilith by George MacDonald, the Wizard of OZ by L. Frank Baum, and the psychadelic artwork inspired by Timothy Leary and manifested in the animaiton of the 60's (like the Yellow Submarine and The Point). I wonder if there is a connection between the three.

Dargers' life, at least initially, DOES simultaneously inspire and repulse. I am repulsed by the ID which flows unhibitedly and manifestly through his creativity (and which lies subconsciously within most of us) and inspired to be an outsider myself, in the sense of being creative in my own way without being hindered by the need for recognition or validity. In a sense, being a believer is being included with the outcasts. What validation matters is not fame or fortune but the love of Christ and the support of the body. What is really sad about Darger is that he was truly an outsider and loner.

elnellis said...

"balanced" people rarely do anything creative, much less, epic. i guess i'm facinated by the hermetic recluse who nobody realizes is an amazing genius. (i just relized that chad was talking about this very issue on his blog wondering how to make the creative process less alienating and more communal, check it out at
how does one's work become a realm that we toil to create and live in in order to escape the real world?
conversly, how do we enter or ignore the worlds of meaning people create for themselves?
and further and most importantly, what was up with the androgynous little people he created?? childlike innocence vs perversion?

elnellis said...

hey pedro, we posted at almost the exact same time.
good points you brought- i think i connected with darger too on the chicago level, i mean, the man lived in wiker and lincoln park, we probably walked by his building at some point. somehow he reflects the outsider in all of us, the part that doesn't feel understood, or the part we hide because we don't know if we will be recieved or rejected.

Lian said...

Yeah, I found his story amazing and frightening and intimidating. I desperately want others to experience my art, to a lesser degree, I really want recognition and praise for it too. The thought of doing something brilliant only for myself repulses me somewhat. But then, that isn't ultimately why I do any of it.
As Ecclesiastes suggests, isn't life ultimately about enjoying the work God has given each of us to do - not to get somewhere with it but merely to enjoy it and in that to please and glorify God who gave it to us to do?
Darger is an example of revelling in the creative need for no apparent reason.
(this is a muddled post, sorry)

elnellis said...

chad, i like what you brought there... the idea of delighting in your work. and didn't God do just that when he pronounced each day "good" and rested in the glory of his work on the 7th day.
we have become trained to shroud our work in humility- it just came to me that in the church i grew up in, whenever someone sang a special song or the drama team did a performance, they were expected to say "for the glory of God" at the end and the congregation knew not to clap... even if it was an inspiring or amazing performance, it was understood that to delight in somone's art is to corrupt the glory due only to God for giving them the ability to perform.
hence my sense that my art is not essential to my being and the guilt around "wasting" time that could be used in more meaningful ways... but it does tend to be alienating in the process... what i find to be more comunal is the dialogue around it afterword.

pedro said...

Right on, guys. Thanks for the great perspective.

nathan Barrett said...


I like that topic, What is the glory of God anyways. I know what it is but how pervasive is it? If we are create in God's image, how do we experience and interact with God's glory. I have just started a purity Bible study ( and the initial study is to make sure that your desire for purity is based around God's glory and not your own freedom from guilt and impurity. I thought on this and wondered if you could separate the two that easily. I believe this is true but in creative arts, genius, skills, hard work, etc... how much of it is can be expressed as coming from us but still being an aspect of God's glory? Apparently John Macarthur from Master's college stopped allowing people to clap for the graduates because of this issue with "stealing" God's glory? What do you think?