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Disasters of WarReview - Disasters of War
by Henry Darger
KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jul 4th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 27)

Disasters of War is a collection of images from Henry Darger's work.  It has about 200 pages of color reproductions of his mammoth illustrations of the Vivian sisters. "The Realms of the Unreal," and it also has several pages extracted from his writings.  The book is introduced with an interview with Kiyoko Lerner, who was Darger's landlord for many year, and became the main curator of his work until the bulk of his creative output was moved to museums.  The book is large and the quality of printing is high, so it is possible to see the details of Dargers' art.  The text of his novel included here, even though just a short extract, is tedious and so almost unreadable.  Much of Darger's drawing is crude and the theme of the battle between the girls and their enemies is in itself not particularly interesting.  What makes Darger's work so mesmerizing is his ability to create such bizarre images, in their content, composition, and style. 

There is no escaping the fact that when looking at these images, one is led to speculate about Darger's mind, and whether he was psychologically disturbed.  In the recent documentary In the Realms of the Unreal (reviewed in Metapsychology 10:23) those who knew him report that he was able to hold down a job and manage his money, but that he was a very strange man, talking to himself in his room using many different voices, yet not very social with other people, not willing to answer any direct questions about himself, and completely secretive about the writing and paintings that he created in his room.  Various experts have offered different diagnoses of him, without ever having met him before his death in 1973, but of course there will never be any confirmation of those speculations.  It is clear that he was very preoccupied with the innocence and fragility of young girls, and their fight against evil powerful forces.  It seems very likely that this theme relates to his own childhood as an orphan, and his suffering at the hands of others.  One of the other mysteries of his work concerns his drawing of naked children, showing girls with small penises.  Some people in the documentary speculate that he did this because he didn't know the biological differences between male and female, but this seems very unlikely, given that he drew some girls without penises, so he could not have believed that all people have them.  Anyway, it seems almost impossible for a man to grow up in the twentieth century with such ignorance, no matter how sheltered he is from the world.  Darger cannot have been so sheltered, since he worked in a hospital for many years.  It is much more likely that male genitalia represented something important to him, but he gives no clue as to what he thought about it. 

This publication, edited by Klaus Biesenbach, helps readers to reflect on Darger's work by providing plenty of material to carefully scrutinize.  However, it may be that Darger's art is simple on the surface, and inscrutable at deeper levels.  One is left with the simple pleasure of looking at the odd images, which are funny, disturbing, puzzling, and often beautiful.  Disasters of War is one of the best collections of Darger's work, and anyone with a deep interest in the man's art should take a look at it.

 

 

© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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