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DargerReview - Darger
The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum
by Brooke Davis Anderson
Harry N Abrams, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jun 14th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 24)

Henry Darger was obsessive.  He wrote a six-volume weather journal for  ten years, with an entry every single day, an autobiography of more than 5,000 pages, 15,000 pages for his novel The Story of  the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angeliannan War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (generally referred to the “Realms of the Unreal”,  and its sequel, Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House.  He was a very religious man—toward the end of his life he attended Catholic Mass three times a day. 

            The work for which Darger is best known is his illustrations for Realms of the Unreal.  The story features seven blonde young girls, “the Vivian girls,” and their battles.  These pictures, done in watercolor, are astonishing.  Nearly all the figures of the girls are traced from elsewhere, such as pictures in advertisements and comics, and even the clouds in Darger’s images are traced from comics.  The long panoramic pictures are astonishing in their use of color and the detail of the scenes, although since we have not read the story the pictures illustrate, it’s hard to judge their qualities as illustrations.  What’s clear is Darger intended no irony in these often surreal and bizarre images of a battle between innocence and evil, and he is utterly devoted to his story.

            Of course, the most striking element of the pictures is found in those where the girls appear nude.  In some, they appear as normal girls, but in others they are given the genitalia of young boys.  The strangest images are of devilish girls who also have horns and tails.  It’s very tempting to diagnose Darger with an unnatural interest in little girls, even though there’s no sign of any sexual element in the stories.  Just as striking as the nudes are those images in which girls are being tortured and chocked – their tongues stick out of their mouths with gruesome effect.

            Darger’s work is certainly original and often visually powerful.  His art has his its own style, which is as unique as that of any major artist.  Furthermore, it tackles major themes of good versus evil and the importance of innocence.  But what it seems to lack is emotional depth. Ultimately, this body of work is seems to be best understood as a symptom of Darger’s pathology rather than having its own creative significance.  This work is fascinating, and understanding his devotion to his work can be moving; some may even be made uncomfortable by the work itself, so it has an unsettling quality to it.  But there’s no reason to think Darger had important or interesting insights to convey, or even to think that he had much understanding of adult emotions.  The view he presents us is basically childlike. 

            The printed page with its limited size can’t really convey the impression of the physical size of his pictures, often over 8 feet long, and sometimes significantly longer.  Nevertheless, this book catalogs a number of incredible images, and also gives details about Darger’s methods of creating his pictures.  There’s a short helpful introduction by Brooke Davis Anderson and a pretentious essay by Michel Thévoz that sheds little light on how to understand Darger.  Those readers who really want to make progress in assessing Darger will need to read John MacGregor’s new book, Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal.

 

NB: Thanks to my colleague Josh Gidding for helpful discussion about Darger.

 

Links:

 

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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