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, he 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.
Here, cartoon-like birds sit on branches, illustrated bloodhounds sniff their way across the landscape, and adult soldiers lurch towards the seven blonde Vivian Girls who run across the recto of the work. On the verso, a large Blengiglomenean Serpent (a cave-dwelling dragon-like creature conceived by Darger), held aloft by its butterfly wings, surveys dozens of children on rafts while they ride out a storm and avoid the adult army. Darger’s figures and animals are created in part through carbon transfers of popular print sources including magazines, packaging, illustrated books and coloring books. Collaged elements from his illustrated source material also appear on this work, including a boat on the verso, which shoots straight towards the viewer, and a running dog, who lopes through the recto landscape.
Darger employed color blocks to set the mood for swaths of land: the rich, jewel-tone greens on the verso evoke a verdant landscape on the water, while the grays and yellow tones on the recto style a drier, inland environment. The sky remains dramatic throughout. The artist also incorporated text in his works, both as a guide for himself and for his imagined viewers. He wrote DIRECTION TO RIVER at the lower center, recto, to orient the scene within his fictional topography, and labeled the large imagined flowers on the recto DELLABELLES for clarity.
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.