Henry Darger, born in Chicago in 1892, had young life that was filled with loss and sorrow, a precursor to the isolation of his adult life. His mother died giving birth to a baby sister when Darger was three years old, and the girl was put up for adoption. Until he was eight years old, Darger attended Catholic school and lived with his father, a tailor. But, stricken with debilitating problems with his legs, the elder Darger was admitted to a poor house and his son sent to a boy’s home.
In school, Darger was keenly interested in history, particularly that of the Civil War. He began to exhibit unusual behavior, voicing strange sounds and making odd hand gestures, for which he was referred to by the nickname “Crazy.” This led to a transfer to another institution, the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois.
Accounts of this place reveal deplorable conditions, rife with stories of neglect and mistreatment. Through all of this, Darger kept in contact with his father, but his death in 1907 instigated a period of profound depression for Darger. He remained in the asylum until he ran away in his late teens, returning to Chicago where he found a janitorial job with the help of a relative.
It was also at this time that he began his incredible creative output, and by the time of his death in 1973 produced the massive manuscript In the Realms of the Unreal (which finished at a total of 15,145 pages), a sequel of over 8,500 pages, plus an autobiography and other journals, in addition to what is estimated to be hundreds of mixed media pieces, created from watercolors, paper copies and cut-outs.
The bulk of his work seems to relate to In the Realms of the Unreal, but is not necessarily a direct illustration of the story. Darger’s work is characterized by his masterful sense of color and composition that provides a framework for the saga of the seven Vivian sisters and scenes of sometimes horrific violence. Technical and stylistic progressions in his work may be traced through his choice of drawing methods and collage, and it has been noted by scholars that his appropriation of images from popular culture is paralleled by movements in mainstream post-war art.
Darger worked in secret during his life, creating this alternate world in his tiny second floor apartment. He is recalled as being a reclusive man who often went to church multiple times a day, but his artistic life was known only to him. At the age of 83, Darger was no longer able to climb the stairs to his apartment and was admitted to a nursing home where he died one day after his 84th birthday. His landlord, Nathan Lerner, a respected photographer and designer, recognized the significance of Darger’s work and preserved his estate.
During the past thirty years since Darger’s death, his work has become increasingly well known in the art world and beyond. The American Folk Art Museum in New York has established the Henry Darger Study Center, and recent projects that reference Darger’s life and work include a song by Natalie Merchant (Ballad of Henry Darger) and a film by Jessica Yu, titled In the Realms of the Unreal.
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