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Darger, Henry

Entry updated 7 August 2023. Tagged: Artist, Author.

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(1892-1973) Self-taught US artist and author based in Chicago, who lived a reclusive existence but became posthumously notable as an outsider artist for his water-colour paintings. Of his work, 300-plus paintings were intended to be illustrations for his 15,000 page novel, nominally sf, which he called «The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion», but which is better known as In the Realms of the Unreal, extensive excerpts from which appear in John M MacGregor's Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unknown (2002). Darger was orphaned while still a child, and institutionalized for behavioural problems, but after several attempts escaped at age sixteen. As an adult he divided his time between working menial jobs, attending church, and, from the age of nineteen in 1911 until his death more than half a century later, obsessively writing long fantasticated narratives which after 1916 or so were set on an unnamed imaginary world much larger than the Earth, and featured Vivian and her valiant sisters. He is thought to have suffered institutional abuse and to have worked out his resulting psychological issues in his fiction and art. The story concerns a war between the forces of good (the Catholic Angelinnians) and evil (the atheistic Glandelinians), and the rescue by the seven titular Vivian Girls of other Children enslaved and subjected to brutal Tortures. The Angelinnians are normally depicted as female girls, usually naked, with tiny male genitals (see Gender), but without any hints of prurience, hinting at the perhaps unplumbable complexities, psychological and metaphysical, that impel this vast enterprise; the scenes of torture and massacre are clearly influenced by images of the American Civil War and of World War One (Darger was drafted in 1917, though he did not see active service). This novel and its sequel «Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House» will probably never be published in their entirety, but representative excerpts appear in books about Darger [see below]. His manuscripts are archived in the Henry Darger Study Center at the Museum of Folk Art in New York City.

Girls on the Run (1999 chap) by John Ashbery (1927-2017) is a narrative fantasia on the Vivian Girls (see Poetry). An outsider-artist character and his paintings in Neil Gaiman's graphic story "Going Inside" in The Sandman: Endless Nights (graph coll 2003), illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, are largely based on Darger and his work. The confidence artist in Michael Swanwick's Darger and Surplus sequence is named after Darger. A sensitively portrayed version of the historical figure plays a central role in Elizabeth Hand's Curious Toys (2019), which is set in 1915, just before In the Realms of the Unreal began to take definitive shape. [LW/JC/DRL]

Henry Joseph Darger

born Chicago, Illinois: 12 April 1892

died Chicago, Illinois: 13 April 1973

further reading

about the author


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