Just a Bit Outside: The Henry Darger Room

May 27, 2016 — Nobody should know the name Henry Darger. Nobody. And if this is the first time you’re reading it, then get ready to recalibrate your entire personal lexicon of words to describe oddballs, weirdos, eccentrics…and artists.

Let me see if I can fit him into a sentence first because those kinds of challenges keep me engaged as a writer: Darger was a hermit hospital janitor who spent his life secretly creating a 15,000-page, densely typed, multi-volume, violent fantasy novel illustrated with mural-sized collages about hermaphrodite children fighting slavers with the help of dragons and other creatures because the photo of a murdered child he saw in the newspaper really bummed him out.

Now. Let’s do that in article form. It’ll still be crammed and omit much of the story. But that’s what I do here: cram and omit much of the story.

Henry Darger was born in 1892 in Chicago. By the time he was 13 he was an orphan and living in an asylum in Lincoln because he was, like, way into self-gratification. At 16, he came back to Chicago and worked as a janitor for pretty much the rest of his life. He never married and lived in a small apartment by himself that he only left to go to work, dig through trash, or attend mass multiple times a day.

After his death in 1973, his real life’s work came to light, lifted from the hip-high detritus of bottles and cans and paper that filled the apartment where he had lived for four decades: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandico-Angelinian Wars, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. A massive work demands a massive title.

Apparently, according to one of his journals, he started the book after becoming obsessed with the unsolved murder of five-year-old Elsie Paroubek, whose photo appeared in the local newspaper. He clipped the photo and carried it around.

The Story of the Vivian Girls is about a group of seven Catholic sister princesses who help an enslaved race of young girls with penises rebel against their overlords with the help of fairy creatures on a big planet whose moon is the Earth. The story and its illustrations swing from ethereal and beautiful to disconcerting and dark. At one point in the story, children are forced to eat the hearts of their dead comrades. One of the illustration is a row of crying children strung up on a gallows.

The massive story also has a sequel, an 8,500-page one entitled, Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago. Instead of an epic fantasy, this one was a horror story about a haunted house that murdered children. Every artist has his incessant themes and, well, child violence was his.

The illustrations for The Story of the Vivian Girls are a mix of collage, traced images, and water colors that combine to form often innocent-seeming fairy-land tableaus that seem both familiar and strange. When the art world found out about Darger’s work they went wild. When the psychiatric world found out about it, they went crazy.

And I got to see the inside of his apartment…in a museum.

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art is dedicated to those creators whose works cannot be traced to any school of art or past or common influence or really to anything other than a distinct, internal, insistent personal vision. Think of the weirdest musician you’ve ever heard of. Yeah, that guy. He’s a poser compared to outsider artists. The museum is located at 756 North Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, and to get to the Darger Room in the back of the museum, I had to walk past weird wonders like these:

The actual works of Darger, his journals and stories, are held the permanent collections of various art museums across the world. But his furniture and other objects from his home life are at Intuit, which re-created the small, dingy apartment where Darger created his world…with only a token amount of his hoarding. A quote from his novelogue adorns the entrance:

All the gold in the gold mines
All the silver in the world
All the money in the world
Nay all the world its[elf]
Cannot buy these pictures from me
Revenge! Terrible veng[eance]
On those who steal or
Who destroy them.

The way it’s set up is you don’t enter the room, you just view it from the doorway and marvel. Marvel at how such a vast, weird story was incarnated in this hovel of an apartment. At how vast and weird the inside of the mind can be.

It doesn’t really look like a writer’s room. A dusty typewriter (he wrote his massive work in longhand first, then typed it) is really the only sign. There were no shiny awards on the shelfs, no well-tended collection of books. I saw no pop culture knick-knacks on the table. No photos of family. Just an old room full of religious icons, old magazines, and cigar boxes.

What I dig about Darger is that I don’t get him. Not at all. He’s the antithesis of modern artists and storytellers, social media mavens who discuss their craft a lot and tap out crowd-pleasers. I want artists whose motivations and creations are impossible to parse just by reading their Wikipedia page.

In fact, Darger was so out there that people have tried to paint him in the extreme, hypothesizing that he was a pedophile or had serial killer tendencies (and maybe more than just tendencies), that he was mentally ill or so innocent he never saw a naked woman and thought everybody had a penis. Few have the restraint to say, “He was just this dude who wrote and painted and kept to himself, and we’ll never really understand him beyond that.”

I want more Henry Dargers.

Unless he was a pedophile or a child murderer, then I want less.