Henry Darger: Art by Any Means


This post is a bit different than what we normally share on Abduzeedo but I couldn't resist sharing it anyways. I recently watched one of the most inspiring documentaries I've ever seen, titled, In the Realms of the Unreal. In it acclaimed documentary film maker Jessica Yu tells the story of the mysterious self-taught artist Henry Darger. From minute one my jaw was on the floor and I was swept away into the fantastic world he had created. I hope you find his story as inspiring as I have, and if you'd like more posts of this nature in the future, please drop me a line in the comments!

Henry Darger was born in Chicago, April 1892.  Tragedy found him early and often.  At the age of three he lost his mother who died in childbirth and his would be sister was given up for adoption.  Both events caused considerable confusion, insecurity, anger, and pain for Henry.  Not many years later he became too great a burden for his father who had become lame and could not continue to take care of him.  For a short time he was looked after by relatives, but on account of odd behavior at school Henry was sent to an asylum for “feeble minded children” at the age of seven, even though he was never diagnosed as being mentally ill.  The asylum was reported to have been in notoriously poor condition in regards to sanitation and staff care, resulting in further harm or injury to patients.  Though there is no account of abuse or other injuries to Henry specifically, one wonders what might have happened or been witnessed there when studying his art.  To make matters worse, while at the asylum Henry received the news of  his Father’s death and is said to have suffered great depression as a result.

Later in life, when he was still just 16, Henry ran away from the “State Farm” (an asylum work program) and made his way back to the area of Chicago where he was born.  It was then that he got a job of the sort he would hold for the rest of his life, a janitor in a Catholic hospital.  But this was not his real life.  Though the domain of his public life spanned a mere four city blocks (with the exception of his time at the asylum) the private life of Henry Darger was one of biblical scope and fantastic imagination.  It was a life of his own creation, only discovered upon his death in 1973 when his unsuspecting landlord happened upon a treasure trove of over 300 intricate watercolor paintings and an illustrated epic fairytale consisting of 15,000 pages as well as other works.  The main work was titled: 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.  Or, In The Realms of the Unreal for short.  And it was in these realms that Henry Darger lived the majority of his life, a brilliant artist hidden from the world in the guise of a simple, lonely janitor.

Art by Any Means

There are a thousand ways to approach the life and works of Henry Darger.  His work is controversial and provocative, intimate and gruesome, sexual and childlike all at the same time.  It’s easy to get caught up in discussions on his psyche or spiritual and emotional turmoil, all of which are extremely interesting discussions to be having by the way, but what I find most inspiring about his story is his unprecedented drive to create.  He let nothing stand in the way of achieving his vision.

According to his autobiography Henry had a great love for children’s books and watercolor kits when he was young and living with his father.  It’s no surprise then that when he wanted to tell his own story he looked for inspiration in similar places.  He pulled images from magazines, coloring books, newspapers, and the like until he had built up a catalogue of sorts - pasting these images into old phone books mostly - for all of the characters in his stories.  This way he could trace, collage, or copy images and then color them in, just like when he was younger.

In a world where nothing seemed to go right for Henry he created a fairytale universe where he made up the rules. He then wrote himself into it, allowing him to fully immerse himself in his art and render such sincere, unfiltered, beautiful, and disturbing images that the effect on the viewer is often dramatic and lasting. This is probably in part because he never intended his art to be viewed by others, lending it an unintentional mystique and voyeuristic magnetism.  Instead of desiring commercial appeal, he made art for an audience of one, his own satisfaction of the utmost importance.

Lacking formal training of any kind, Henry knew only that he had a vision and that he needed to see it fulfilled.  He cared little for the “rules” of the art world, allowing him to experiment like few others, incorporating advertisements in his art decades before the likes of Warhol or Lichtenstein.  And even though he lived on a meager janitor’s salary, he would save his favorite images and take them to the local drug store where he’d have an expensive photo enlargement made.  This allowed him to duplicate these images and use them over and over again in whatever scale he desired, to fantastic effect.

A brief study of his life and art have caused me to wonder how my own art would be affected if I adopted similar attitudes.  How could I improve if I embodied Darger's desperation to create?  What would happen if I wrote, designed, or painted for myself - with my own standards in mind - no matter what others were doing?  And what sort of work could I produce if I were as doggedly inventive with the resources available to me?

It is the result of questions like these that have prompted me to share the art and story of Henry Darger.  I think his contribution to recent art history and the questions it causes us to ask are healthy for the art community to consider and I hope it brings you an abundance of motivation and inspiration :)

Assorted Works

A Growing Legacy

Though fame and prestige was never his aim, Henry Darger finds himself (posthumously) a hero to the folk art or “outsider” art world.  He is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished and prolific folk art masters the United States has ever produced.  Many of his paintings, and most - if not all - of his writings, reside at the Folk Art Museum of New York where students and admirers alike come to marvel at his imagination and the staggering scope of his life’s work.


The Henry Darger Wikipedia page

In the Realms of the Unreal - [video] documentary trailer

Henry Darger, Art and Selected Writings by Michael Bonesteel

Written by

Nathan Weller