Henry Darger (1892-1973) is widely recognized as one of the stars of Outsider Art. His large-scale horizontal-format watercolor drawings chronicle events and scenes from a mythical world of his own creation.
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.
This double-sided piece does not appear to directly correspond with a moment in Darger’s manuscript. It depicts a time of peace, likely long after the Glandeco-Angelinian War has ended, or perhaps long before it had begun. The weather in Darger’s works often relates to actions portrayed; here, in a scene of joy, the sun shines. On the recto, a castle looms over a village of suburban American-style houses with white picket fences. Children of different scales populate the foreground, while the background includes figures in Victorian garb next to flowers twice their size. Large collaged butterflies graze the upper right surface of the paper, visually sitting on a plane between the viewer and the watercolor. In the center of the composition the Vivian girls – the protagonists of Darger’s story – wear yellow sundresses adorned with poppies. The verso presents the other side of the village, and the castle and town recede into the background. On this side, the Vivian girls sit in blue sundresses with yellow daisies.
Darger incorporated text in his works, both as a guide for himself and for his readers. He included directionals that orient pieces within his fictional topographies (the verso includes NORTH on the top edge), and named objects rendered in outline (on the verso, multiple CLOUD labels appear across the sky). Speech bubbles serve as guides, providing clues to the narrative of the scene. Here, on the verso, one girl offers advice to another: Watch where you are going kid you’ll run smack into those phanto flowers. This draws the viewer’s eye to the left edge of the page where two girls, one wielding a parasol and the other massive plucked “phantom” blooms, are running towards the figures in conversation.
Darger’s figures are created in part through carbon transfers of popular print sources including magazines, packaging, illustrated books and coloring books. For example, the young girl with a parasol on the lower left of the verso is taken from a coloring book illustration of Little Miss Muffet (fig. 1). The seated Vivian sisters on both sides of the work are repeated versions of a magazine illustration (fig. 2).
The scale of Darger’s pieces and his understanding of composition and color grew over time, and the complexity of this drawing and its large size indicates this is a later work by the artist. Vibrant colors are a trademark of Darger’s mature work, and this piece includes bright yellows, greens, reds, pinks, and blues. His carbon transfer figures are beautifully fleshed out through colored dresses and hair accessories; lush forested scenes are brought to life with various shades of green. Compositionally sophisticated, the numbers and scale of the figures wax and wane with the hills of the landscape, creating undulating movement across the page.
Darger’s works can also be chronologically situated through the physical characteristics of his “Blengiglomenean Serpents,” colloquially called Blengins. Cave-dwelling dragon-like creatures of the Realms of the Unreal, Darger’s manuscript chronicled many species of Blengin, and he frequently incorporated these mythical animals in his watercolors. Darger initially depicted Blengins as serpent-tailed winged figures with human or animal faces. Over time, these creatures developed more human characteristics, until they became distinguishable from children only by their horns (John MacGregor, Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal (New York, 2002), p. 347). The ram-horned Blengins with full human bodies, visible to the center-left of both sides of this piece, indicate this was a later artwork.
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. A major retrospective of his art is on view at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris through mid-October 2015.