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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 mantoward the end
of his life he attended Catholic Mass three times a day.
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 Dargers 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, its hard to judge their qualities as illustrations. Whats 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.
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. Its
very tempting to diagnose Darger with an unnatural interest in little girls, even
though theres 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.
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 Dargers 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 theres 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.
page with its limited size cant 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 Dargers
methods of creating his pictures.
Theres 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 MacGregors new book,
Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal.
NB: Thanks to my colleague Josh Gidding for helpful
discussion about Darger.
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
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.