Henry Dargers life and works are utterly fascinating, he created a complete world within his book ‘The Realms of the Unreal’ alongside the novel were flags, several hundred paintings, drawings and collages of mainly the heroines of the piece fully entitled ’The Story of the Vivian girls, The realms of the unreal – The Glandeco-angelinian War Storm caused by the child slave Rebellion’.
The Vivian girls were the seven daughters of Robert Vivian, the seven princesses of the Christian nation of Abbieannia. The Vivian girls are brave and strong and constantly fighting a rebellion against the evil child slavery regime led by John Manley and the Glandelininians. Darger was inspired to begin the novel by a photograph in the Newspaper of a five year old murder victim named Elsie Paroubek, who was suffocated to death and her body found a month after her disappearance in a sanitary channel. He lost the photograph, believing it to have been stolen when his locker was broken into. The absence of the photograph greatly disturbed Henry and he even searched archival records to trace another copy down from the old newspaper reports but to no avail.
Elsie is imagined in the novel as Annie Aronburg -the leader of the Vivian girls in their oftentimes horrifically violent fight against the Glandelinians. The gruesome death of Elsie, her disappearance and her funeral were given a huge amount of media coverage in the ‘Daily News’ and other papers at the time. Her killer was never found and, along with Henry never finding the lost photograph, made writing the novel his all consuming obsession; the creation of Darger’s legendary works of outsider art.
Outsider Art is the term used for work made completely separate from traditional art schools or any learned institutions, Darger’s work was created over a span of 43 years in his flat in Chicago Illinois, during this time he lived in practical solitude, working a menial job at the local hospital to support himself until his death in 1973.
Elsie Paroubek. Age 5
MaM (Musee de art modern) Has just begun an exhibition on Darger with over 45 donated works and the show runs from 29th May- 11th October.
Below are images from the show and a short interview with the curator Choghakate Kazarian.
Ami Evelyn: The book accompanying the exhibition includes essays on Darger’s life and works, personal tributes and a mythology dictionary, can you provide us with your favourite excerpts from these?
Choghakate Kazarian: Here is an excerpt from Kiyoko Lerner’s recollections :
Kiyoko Lerner was Henry’s landlady and one of the very few people he had any real contact with.
Translated from French manuscript-
Henry claimed to be born in Brazil.
On the cover page of his manuscript (The History of My Life), he said: “written by Henry Joseph Darger (Dargarius in Brazilian) “. He adds that he is born in Brazil and that his parents moved to the United States when he was 2 years old.
The Lady from the second floor complained one day of water damage from the third floor – it was winter. The Lady asked Henry: When last had he taken a bath? the day before? Henry, very proudly, replied: “I never take bath in winter. I am born in Brazil! ”
At the time, Henry still lived in the building, David, who lived in the part of the apartment overlooking the street and Nathan and I had arranged for him a small birthday party in the garden, courtyard side.
We had made a cake to eat and David was in charge of the birthday cake.
After eating a little bit of cake, Henry said to us: “I would like to sing a song from the Brazilian market for the children. “And it was intended to get around the table like everyone singing together at the market. We are far from thinking that the words were actually in Brazilian!
I regret that we did not record it… we would have to check what he actually sang as we think it was really in portuguese … what is certain is that it was a market song, to my ears, in any case.
Henry’s dedication to a story he never intended to show another soul- this complete lack of need for recognition is by todays standards very unusual and honourable, it adds a lot of validation to the work. What do you think of his motivation and dedication? Purely down to his supposed autism or something else?
The fact that he never showed his work to anyone and did not need any recognition to go on working on his grand oeuvre is probably one of the reasons why Henry Darger is so admired by artists. I guess they see in him the ideal artist, a true authentic. Which is actually rare as even many art brut or outsider artists such as Aloïse or Joseph Yoakum are at one point discovered by someone and their art considered as such. With Darger it is different as he was discovered a few months before his death and never talked about it.
I do not think that not showing his work was a sign of autism or any such thing. Maybe he tried to show his work at the beginning (cf my essay in the catalog about the discovery) and was rejected by his closest people and then decided to stop. I also think that this world was mainly created for himself. That is very unusual and radical. I think this post mortem recognition is very romantic, as is, at another level, the story of Van Gogh. They are both like saints who had a hard life and gained recognition after death. Speaking of saints, Darger was very catholic and was indeed aware of all the cult around the saints (and Joan of Arc who was canonized in 1920) who suffered the worst and gained paradise after death.
Could you talk us through your favourite piece within the show?
It is like asking a mother to choose her favourite kid ! Well, I think The Battle of Calverhine is definitely a masterpiece. I also like at second battle of McHollester Run they are persued. This is a Tropical region. For some unknown reason the tree are dead : the composition, with the little girls hiding behind the trees, is magnificent. At Calmanrina Strangling and beating children to death. At Cedernine murdering naked little girls is also a very good one, because of how Darger finds a way to create chaos and destruction.
The show is based on a gift of 45 works from the Henry Darger estate. I had seen his work many years ago in New York and have been fascinated since then.
I have been fascinated with Henry and his work since I first saw it about 5 years ago in a book in Brighton university library, for me as well as the work being so beautiful and chaotic and dark all at the same time it is the sheer amount of work and this whole world he created for only his pleasure that adds to the magic. He wrote himself into the story as the children’s protector, I think he genuinely lived within this world as much as someone living upon Earth physically can. His real gravestone bears only two descriptions ‘Artist’ and ‘protector of children’.
Henry Darger is on at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris from now until the 11th October
More information can be found here.