Henry Darger (1892-1973) is widely recognized as one of the stars of Outsider Art. The artist had a difficult childhood, having lost both parents by age eight, and found stability in a job as a janitor at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago. Outside a brief stint in the army in late 1917, he worked in area hospitals from age seventeen until his retirement in 1963. If by day Darger led an unremarkable existence, by night, in a tiny apartment in Chicago’s North Side, he created a magnificent, fantastical world in watercolor and in words. His magnum opus, a 15,000-page typed manuscript entitled 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, tells the story of a great war on an imaginary planet where child slaves, led by a group of pre-teens called the Vivian Girls, engaged in a series of battles with their adult overlords to gain freedom. Though he finished his manuscript in the 1930s, he continued to illustrate his world long after he finished the text.
Darger carefully considered the characters in his stories, chronicling them in both his manuscript and in didactic visual panels as seen here. The Most Desperate Fighters surveys high-ranking members of the Glandelinian army, providing portraits, names, and nicknames for the Generals. Modeled after images of Civil War soldiers, Darger employed carbon transfer techniques to render his characters. Additionally, each portrait has a different background color, and Darger used at least two different types of paint, implying that the portraits were perhaps created in two or more sessions and then assembled into this survey at a later point. The card on which the portraits are adhered provides an overarching narrative that links the figures.
Text plays a fundamental role throughout Darger’s oeuvre, and it is employed to varying degrees in his different types of output. His manuscript relies on thick description, while his large-scale watercolors use text sparingly but with import, providing titles and settings for the imagery. This work straddles Darger’s manuscripts and large-scale watercolors in purpose and visuals: text-heavy, it also relies on the artist’s watercolor and carbon-transfer techniques. It bridges the stories of his book and the worlds brought to life in his drawings.
Henry Darger’s work is in the collections of institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the American Folk Art Museum, New York, and the Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne, Switzerland.