The fascinating life-long work of Henry Darger offers a depth and coherence hardly ever reached in any other artist’s life. Until October 11 this beautiful exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris pays tribute to this (unfairly) unknown icon of Art Brut, notably thanks to the gift of 45 works from the photographer Nathan Lerner’s widow – the former owner of Darger’s apartment – and loans by prestigious institutions such as MOMA and the Lausanne Collection d’Art Brut.
The creations of an artist are rarely as autobiographical as Darger’s. Marked by a traumatising childhood, Darger sought refuge in solitude early on. This offered him the opportunity to develop fantastical works in secret, both literary and graphic, inspired from popular illustrations and an imaginary world borrowed from childhood. Re-discovered a few months before his death in 1973 by Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner – who had been renting him his apartment for half a century – this enormous oeuvre undeniably deserved the new insight brought to it by this exhibition.
His pictorial work is made up of two periods: the first coincides with the writing of his 15,000 page epic The Story of the Vivian Girls in the Realms of the Unreal, and represents the various protagonists; the second consists of large narrative panels painted on both sides.
The exhibition traces these two periods chronologically, using themes to pinpoint the major aspects of Darger’s work. ‘Ruins and Chaos’ highlights the influence of images from the Civil War and the First World War on the artist’s imagination. ‘Chronicles of a War’ gathers the portraits of war generals described in the novel The Story of the Vivian Girls in the Realms of the Unreal while ‘The Vivian Girls’ adventures’ brings together the narrative panels created in the 1930s, when his writing of the novel was coming to an end. ‘Blengin Snakes’ details an element crucial to Darger’s mythology, these hybrid creatures whose strength is both human and animal. ‘The slaughter of the innocents’ is the most violent part of his work, in which childhood truly becomes the centre of his concerns. Painted naked as a mark of their vulnerability, these children are tortured and killed by cruel adults, the ‘glandeliniens’. The paradise of ‘Abbibeannia’, where girls finally get their childhood back, is pictured in ‘The post-war period’ which covers 1950–1960.
Simultaneously sublime, cruel and poetic, this allegorical epic that tells the story of the struggle between good and evil represents the significance of a life withdrawn from the world, with Darger’s work becoming a refuge and an explanation for the artist’s troubles.
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Le Principal Drapeau national d’Abbieannia
graphite pencil and gouache on wove paper, 35.6 x 42.9 cm.
© Eric Emo / Musée d'Art Moderne / Roger-Viollet
© 2015 Kiyoko Lerner / ADAGP, Paris