Jeff’s Eccentric People, Places, and Things: Henry Darger

Henry Darger

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It is a real shame that there are so many talented people in the world that may never be recognized. This still somewhat mysterious genius was only discovered at his death and still is unknown outside the “outsider art” aria. Henry was born in Chicago, Illinois in April 12, 1892. His mother died after giving birth to another child, a daughter, but she was adopted by another family. In school Henry was a bit of a smart-aleck and made strange noises, probably due to Tourette Syndrome. He said he was “able to see the lies adults made,” and was often bullied by classmates and scolded by teachers. Henry lived with his father until 1900 when his father was taken to live in the St. Augustine’s Catholic Mission home and he was sent to a school for boys.  After his father died a few years later Henry was then sent to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children because of his strange behavior. While not all bad, the asylum had severe punishments and forced labor for the children. Henry would use these as inspiration in his later work.

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In 1908, after some failed attempts, he escaped from the asylum and made his way back to Chicago, where he made his living as a janitor for a Catholic hospital. For the remainder of his life, except for a brief service during WWI (he never even left the country) he lived there in a small apartment. He was also a very devoted Catholic and went to mass daily, sometimes even five times a day. He would also go through alleyways and garbage collecting things like newspaper clippings and old magazines.  Through his life since he returned he worked on a number of writings. His best known was his fantastic epic, In the Realms of the Unreal: the Story of the Vivian Girls. The story was about a long war between the great Christian nation of Abbieannia led by the seven noble princesses, the Vivian Girls against the evil, child enslaving country of Glandelinia and its sadistic ruler General John Manly (named after a sometimes bully from the asylum) with the help of bizarre, sometimes, half human but friendly beast called “ the Blengigomeneans.”  Henry even put himself in the story as the Girls protector. The book was 15,145 pages long and had hundreds of detailed pictures Henry created using a combination of collages, water colors and sketches for his work, some were at least ten feet long. It is important to note for the readers, if they are interested in looking more into the work of Henry Darger, that there is some brutal and disturbing imagery including some pretty intense war violence, occasional torture and gore,and lots of non pornographic nudity of children. Many times the Vivian Girls are drawn with…well, something extra with their physical anatomy. There have been quite a few theories on why he drew like this, like Henry was trying to show them with personality of girls and boys together, or that he didn’t know that much about sex in the first place.

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Henry died a day after his birthday in 1973 in the same hospital his father died in. He is buried in the All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. All of his bizarre yet charming work was discovered by his landlords, moving out his stuff at this time. They publicized and displayed his work in several major art museums. Henry Darger, while not the most famous American artist in general, is one of the best known and most sought-after artist in the outsider art and has inspired all kinds of work in that genre.  In 2004 a PBS documentary of his life and work was created by Academy-Award winning director and writer Jessica Yu.

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