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Henry Darger | Down the Rabbit Hole

Henry Darger | Down the Rabbit Hole


[jazzy opening music] Of the outsider artists there’s perhaps none so well known as the reclusive Henry Darger. Despite his work being entirely unknown during his life Forbes estimates that his visual art alone sold for over two million dollars in the 1970s, while his original manuscripts are highly prized documents. The term outsider art can be difficult to define, but the designer of the Down The Rabbit Hole logo, Elise McCall, offers this clarifying statement. Quote “An outsider artist is just what the name implies: an outsider at least in relation to the mainstream art establishment. The simplest characteristic of an outsider artist is that they are self-taught, having very little to no formal training in the arts.” Unquote. Despite his posthumous fame, only four photographs have ever been found of him, making him a distant, almost intangible figure and even during his life his acquaintances weren’t certain how to pronounce his last name So who was this man, and how did he create and hide such a sprawling body of work? Very Little is known of Henry Darger’s childhood He was born a first child on April 12th of 1892 in Chicago, Illinois. Less still is known about Rosa, his mother, but his father, also named Henry, was a tailor. The younger Henry was an uncommonly intelligent child and his father taught him to read at an early age, using the newspaper as a learning tool even before he entered school. His mother, however, was not in his life for long. When Darger was four, Rosa Gave birth to a second child but she died very shortly afterward from a septic infection due to complications with the birth. Darger’s father–though gainfully employed–believed himself unfit to care for both his son and his newborn girl. So, within a month of her birth, Henry Sr. gave up the newborn for adoption to raise Henry, Jr. as an only child. When Darger began his schooling he was placed in the third grade rather than the first grade thanks to his uncommon intellect and his father’s guidance. But this good fortune would not last. When Darger was eight his father lost his ability to walk and so he was admitted to St. Augustine’s home for the aged while he sent his son to live and be schooled at Mission of Our Lady of Mercy, a roman catholic shelter. Though apparently cared for well, his relationships with the other children were troubled. He would commonly interrupt class by making strange noises with his mouth and he was occasionally nasty and violent to the other children, including assaulting a girl with a knife. Reacting to Darger’s disruptive behavior, the shelter ordered a psychiatric evaluation for him. After it was concluded, Darger was sent to live in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-minded Children in Lincoln, over a hundred miles southwest of Chicago. At the time, Darger was 12 years old. According to official records, the chief reason for his being committed was masturbation. There, he suffered from neglect and overcrowding. It was no secret that the asylum used children as a labor force, as the government of Lincoln had fought hard for the institution on the grounds that it would help secure the economy of the town. Anne E. Parsons, in her essay “From Asylum to Prison: The Story of the Lincoln State School”, writes quote, “The Lincoln asylum built its own farm, with workers growing oats and corn and raising hogs and colts. The farm provided much of the asylum’s food, which helped keep it financially afloat. The residents made up the majority of those workforces.” unquote. Darger himself was forced to work on the farm from early morning to evening, where violence from the taskmasters was encouraged to punish children for misbehaving. Only after some time will this abuse come to light. Darger, in his autobiography many years later, wrote about his experience there. Quote “During the early summer of the fourth year I made my first attempt to run away. But that farm’s cowboy caught me in a cornfield, tied my hands together, and made me run back all the way on the rear of a horse” unquote. Many scholars of Darger’s work suggest that he was also the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of the asylum’s employees. A possibility that would fall in line with occurrences at asylums during the early 1900s. Even so, in his autobiography Darger reminisces fondly about the asylum, which he called the state farm, saying that his life was like a sort of heaven there. He follows this up with a question: “Do you think I might be fool enough to run away from heaven if I get there?” Darger made two more attempts to escape. The second time he gave himself up to the police, who promptly returned him to the asylum. On the third attempt he successfully evaded capture and worked his way back to his hometown of Chicago. However, only shortly before he began his escape attempts, he had learned that his father died while at St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged and so he sought refuge with his godmother who offered him shelter. By this point, he was 17. Henry Darger wasted no time finding employment. Soon after his return to Chicago he was employed at St. Joseph’s hospital, where he worked as a janitor. The staff also allowed him to live on site where he mostly kept to himself. Little is known about him during this period, but he did manage to find a friend in a man named William Schloeder, a Chicago resident who lived with his mother and sisters. As Darger’s only friend, the two would spend significant time together at amusement parks and at Schloeder’s home. While at the parks, Darger claims that he ,willfully, quote “did all the spending.” Besides this, it seems that his time during this period was spent quietly working and living at the hospital, where he drew little attention and led a simple life, attending mass at church daily. It was during this time that Darger set to work on the novel and series of visual pieces that would become his magnum opus. When he conceived of it is uncertain, but work on it began in 1909. It told the story of The Vivian Girls: seven sisters and princesses of unmatched beauty and virtuousness. He describes them as quote “always willing to do as they were told, keeping away from bad company and going to Mass and Holy Communion every day and living the lives of Little Saints”, but these girls were alive while two countries were at war. The first, Angelinia, serves as the good side in Darger’s work, being a devoutly Christian nation and ready to right any wrongs. It serves as the center for a coalition of states in the war. On the other side were the evil Glandelinians, who desperately hated the Christians and committed violent and heinous crimes, including that most egregious sin to Darger: the enslavement, torture, and murder of children. There were many familiar characters in his work taken from books in his library, but perhaps most notable was himself. Darger casts himself as a feared general in the Abbieanian army, who hailed from the distant land of the United States. In the story he is especially well known for being the protector of children, heading the Gemini: a society dedicated to the protection of little boys and girls and striking vengefully against any who would hurt them. Co-leading the Gemini was Darger’s dear friend William Schloeder. A childhood bully, John Manly was immortalized as the leader of the Glandelinian forces. This story would be given the remarkably long name “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”/ This name is often shortened to simply The Realms of the Unreal. He began by writing it longhand, then changed to a typewriter later. Darger’s accompanying visual art would be complicated and sprawling. This in spite of the fact that he had no experience or schooling in the arts. This compounded with the issue of his limited disposable income, which was already strained due to his trips to the amusement park. Since he couldn’t afford drawing lessons, he began to utilize any sort of visual art he could obtain, which often included photographs and advertisements from newspapers. He also would use pages from coloring books. For drawing material he would use any blank paper, paints, pens, or pencils he could find, including that which he found while rummaging through garbage bins. Upon these pieces of paper he would copy or trace individual images, sometimes pasting them onto the sheet itself and drawing around or on them. As he practiced this method, his library of reference images grew and he found himself returning to certain images which he would reuse, creating deep creases in them and wearing them down. When an image he wished to use was too small he would spend what meager amount of money he had left of his paycheck to purchase and enlargement. These reference images and their copies came to fill his apartment. Darger would often draw the children frolicking naked in beautiful landscapes with surreal foliage, but there were anatomical oddities. In most cases he would simply leave their genitalia flat like a doll’s, but sometimes the girls would be drawn with penises and testicles, a footnote that manages to perplex scholars even today. Theories as to why he did this range from simple unawareness of female anatomy, to a latent unrealized homosexuality, to a belief that only men could do war and so he was equipping them appropriately. Of Darger’s clippings, there was none that he treasured more than that of a girl named Elsie Paroubek, who was featured in the Chicago Daily news after her murder by suffocation in 1911. One day, in the summer of 1912, Darger lost his copy of this photograph. Unable to rediscover it in the public archives of the library, Darger began frantically petitioning God for its return, going so far as to create a shrine in his apartment to which he prayed. When bargaining failed, he attempted threats, but in a peculiar way, if the clipping was not returned, then the war within the realms of the unreal would shift against the Christian nations, and yet the clipping eluded him. Seeing no other option, he took his vengeance within his own narrative, turning his avatar against the Christian nation and to the side of the Glandelinians, soliloquizing that God had been too harsh on him and that he would bear it no longer. At one point he threatened that he would cease writing the narrative altogether. This period, however, coincided with the beginning of World War One, and approximately eight years after he escaped the asylum, he was drafted into the army. Once again he was sent away from his home. This time all the way to a camp in Texas. Of his time there he wrote, “I would have in a way liked the army life, only I was forced to leave behind things I loved too much. That was almost unbearable.” It’s likely that his experience at the asylum, where he had learned not to talk back, served him well in the camp. However, he managed to get himself discharged due to bad eyesight, which he admits he exaggerated. His time at the camp served as an inspiration for his own war within The Realms of the Unreal, and when he returned do too did the horrors wreaked upon the Christian nations and the children. A piece from the New York Times paraphrases Darger’s writing. Quote “Little girls from the age of nine, eight, and even younger were tied down stark naked, and a spade full of red hot live coals laid on their bellies. Scores upon scores of poor children were cut to pieces after being strangled to death. Children were forced to swallow the sliced fragments of dead children’s hearts. Their protruding tongues were extracted.” Unquote. In real life his anger manifested as a cessation of his daily visits to the church. Even so, he dearly longed to adopt a child of his own and continued to petition the church for the opportunity. Darger’s love not just for children but for the carefree times of childhood was unambiguous. In his story childhood innocence is viewed as one of the highest goods and close to godliness, while the stripping of that innocence is the deepest evil. In his journal he spoke of how he yearned for his own childhood once more. However, with no spouse, his low income, and his time in a mental asylum for masturbation, then associated with homosexuality, his hope of an adoption from the Catholic church proved fruitless. This also he blamed on God not answering his prayers. He mused that the refusal had to do with his threat to make the Christians lose the war, referring to his writing, showing just how muddled the line between fiction and reality had become for him. His job at the hospital, given back to him upon his return, proved more difficult than it had before his drafting. One nurse in particular, whom he named as Sister DePaul, would harass him during his workday over his janitorial performance. And Darger, not one to talk back, would quietly take the abuse. Sometimes she would even threaten to send him back to the asylum, though by this point he was far too old to return, but not even this could get a rise out of him. However, as soon as he returned to his room, he would begin long arguments where he would play as both himself and DePaul, where he always would come out the victor. In his room, he would also take on the voices of many other people, and later neighbors spoke about how it sounded like a whole host of people were in his room, with many different dialects and registers. Despite these dramas, Darger’s everyday life was surprising in how menial it was. He would do very little besides crafting The Realms of the Unreal, work at the hospital, and visit his friend William Schloeder. Eventually, citing Sister DePaul’s strict nature, he left his job and found work at another hospital as a dishwasher. This meant that he would have to find new residence. He spent a few years in one apartment in walking distance of his new workplace before moving to another, just two blocks away from the first. This room proved more permanent, and it slowly collected junk, in some places knee-high. Items such as empty pepto-bismol bottles and old newspapers. His habits were strange. He would recite a chant before entering the bathroom, and he claimed that he was born in Brazil though his birth certificate clearly stated that he was born in Chicago. He had no visitors. Nobody would interrupt him as he wrote his work about the Vivian Girls and their narrow escapes from the Glandelinians. Then, one day, quite suddenly, Darger’s hatred for God ceased. Darger wrote one day in his journal about reading a comic about a man who was sent to hell for his sins. According to himself this was enough to scare him and turn his faith back to the church and trust that, for whatever reason, God decided to take the photograph from him, perhaps as a test of faith. To parallel this change in his temperament, his avatar within his story also returned to the faith, turning his allegiance back to the Christian forces to fight against the Glandelinians. Soon after, the story would be drawn to a close. Darger’s completed works totaled approximately 15,000 pages, collected into seven hand-bound volumes and eight unbound volumes. The contents of the latter were not clearly ordered and parts of the narrative were not given a place, making it difficult to discern where exactly they belonged, but this didn’t seem to bother him. Perplexingly there were two endings written for The Realms of the Unreal: one where the Christian forces triumph, and another where they are defeated and John Manly reigned supreme. Each is written on a different side of the same sheet of paper. It’s not clear exactly when he finished this work, but the completion of The Realms of the Unreal did not mark the end of his writing endeavors, which he continued in between working his menial hospital job. As the years went by he would move between hospitals. In 1936 he was asked to leave Grant Hospital, whereupon he was rehired at St. Joseph’s, where he had worked before. Then, in 1947, he moved to Alexian Brothers Hospital, again as a dishwasher, but when this task became too strenuous for his aging body he was moved to the bandage room. Through the succeeding two decades he worked quietly on a sequel to The Realms of the Unreal entitled Further Adventures of the Vivian Girls in Chicago, though it seems that this story had far fewer illustrations than The Realms of the Unreal. It was during this time that William Schloeder made the difficult decision to move to Texas with his sister, and shortly after his move, he died. With no other friends and a reclusive lifestyle, Henry Darger was alone. As time wore on, age began to take its toll on his body, and he was forced to retire and go on Social Security in 1963. During this time he began work on a few other pieces of writing. One of these was a weather journal that lasted exactly 10 years in which he rebuked the weatherman for attempting to predict what the bible said would always be unpredictable. This journal also featured his penchant for long names. Book of Weather Reports on Temperatures, Fair Cloudy to Clear Skies, snow, rain, or summer storms, and winter snows, and big blizzards, also the “low” temperatures of severe cold waves and hot spells of summer. He also wrote of himself in a book titled The History of My Life, in which he spends 206 pages selectively chronicling his experiences. However this suddenly shifts from autobiography to a five thousand page fiction detailing a devastating account of a tornado named sweetiepie. Besides this his life was abnormally quiet. With so much free time, he began to attend church far more frequently, sometimes five masses a day. Darger’s neighbors despite his reclusive lifestyle seemed to pity him and when interviewed about him spoke of him with a generally positive tone. They often would help him how they could and when he could no longer afford rent, the landlords cut his payments by a quarter so he could continue living there. But this state of affairs wouldn’t last the decade. Darger’s legs, like his father’s, had begun to give out, and when he was hit by a car in 1969 his leg problems worsened to the point that he struggled to get up the stairs to his third story room. In 1972 he petitioned his landlords to help him move into St. Augustine’s Charity Nursing Home, the place where his father had gone when he was first abandoned at the orphanage. As time went on his memory began to fade and he could no longer recognize his old neighbors who would sometimes come to visit him. With Darger unable to clean out his old room his Landlords Nathan and Kyoko Lerner Began the arduous process of cleaning it out for him. It was then that they discovered the incredible amounts of work hidden away. Kyoko’s initial reaction was to throw it out, but Nathan refused. All of Darger’s neighbors came to see the work and were stunned by the beauty of his visual art. Shortly after, they went to visit him. When one mentioned the artwork to him and complimented him on it, Darger reacted with surprise, but all he replied with was “Too late now”. Very shortly after this incident Henry Darger died a quiet death. All of his works inevitably fell into the ownership of his landlords, the Lerners, who ended up auctioning them off and selling or donating them to museums. The reaction of artistic scholars was immediately one of simultaneous fascination and revulsion. It was largely believed that he was a murderer and a pedophile due to his obsessive nature and his collection of reference images of little girls. Still these suspicions couldn’t dull the fascination with him and his works are now highly prized. In the year 2000 his pieces could be bought for up to 80,000 at auction, a figure that has now reached seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. That same year The Outsider and Folk Art Museum Intuit in Chicago set up a permanent display featuring the contents of his room when the Lerners were cleaning it out. His works were slightly refurbished and placed in climate-controlled archival rooms due to the fragility his cheap materials. Overtime, scholarship around Darger seems to have moved away from allegations of murder and pedophilia toward a more sympathetic understanding. Though his works remain unpublished, they still have sparked the fascination and interest of artists around the world, as a man who truly devoted himself to his art. In a way, He embodies the idea of the heroic artist who creates purely for the sake of creation, uncaring of what the world might think.

Comments (2)

  1. I wonder if he was autistic: the early ability to read and being placed grades above others, self taught artist, lack of social skills (one friend and touching himself so much he was institutionalized and his obsessive writing and drawing on one subject for many years.

  2. I've been fascinated by some of your videos, but this one made me shed several tears for some reason, and I'm fascinated and perplexed.

  3. As an artist I'm stunned I neva heard of this man. Genuis. Thx agin Youtube.

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