25 December 2020

Klaus Biesenbach (ed.): Henry Darger (2009; repr. 2019)


Henry Darger (1892-1973) lived most of his life in Chicago, latterly in a two-roomed flat at 851 West Webster Avenue. He'd had an awful childhood, his mother dying when he was a baby, and (his father being incapable of work) was sent to a Catholic boys' home as a child. His education ended at the age of twelve, when he was sent to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. Five years later, he escaped and caught the train to Decatur, from where he walked 175 miles back to Chicago. His working life was mainly spent in hospitals, particularly washing up. When he was admitted to hospital shortly before his death it was left to his landlord, the artist Nathan Lerner, to clear out the stuff he'd accumulated over the decades: it was to prove unbelievable.

Darger had spent many years writing a colossal novel he was constantly tinkering with but which he never finished, called 'In the Realms of the Unreal', about a war between an alliance of four (Catholic) nations and one which believed in child slavery. A group of female pre-pubescent children, the Vivians, are the heroes of the novel. Darger had always wanted to have or adopt a child, never wanted to grow up, and his literary influences reflect that: cartoons, Alice in Wonderland, but especially L. Frank Baum's Oz books: Ozma was a transsexual and Darger is noted for his young girls have male genitals.

This book is one of those rarities: a huge coffee table book with academics writing, many of Darger's glorious paintings (including eight three-page gatefolds) and it is one to be treasured. 'Outsider art' is already being considered as a derogatory term, and it seems particularly disrespectful here: Darger may have been self-taught, but he is still a major artist.

No comments: