Henry Darger: The Inside Of An Outsider
Leo Segedin   |  1/11/2006 |   Print this essay

I

Henry Darger is perhaps the most famous “Outsider” artist in the world. Not only is he being exhibited internationally; he is also in the permanent collections of many major art museums including the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian. An archive of his writings and paintings has been established at the American Museum of Folk Art in New York. The archive is part the Henry Darger Study Center at the museum. A foundation funding indigent and mentally ill artists has been created in his name. A half dozen major books and numerous articles have been written about him. A film about him by Academy Award wining filmmaker, Jessica Yu, In the Realm of the Unreal, has been distributed in major theaters nationally and a documentary is in preparation. A contract to do a film dramatization of his life has been signed with the Hollywood studio that made films such as Thirtysomething, Traffic and The Last Samurai. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, John Ashbery, has published a book- length poem, Girls on the Run, and last May, a two hour dance program, The Vivian Girls, was presented in Seattle. Also based on his life and work, an opera, Jennie Richee, played at the Museum of Modern Art in 2000 and a play by Mac Wellman, also called Jennie Richee, played at the Ridge Theater in Chicago in 2003. A British rock band was named the Vivian Girls. There are 126,000 ‘hits’ on Google and 107,000 on Yahoo Search devoted to Darger. The market for his paintings continues unabated, some of them having been sold for up to 150 thousand dollars. According to Forbes magazine, Darger’s paintings and drawings have brought in at least 2 million dollars. The art critic, Arthur Danto, in a review of ‘Outsider Art’ in ‘The Nation’ in 1997, wrote that ‘the reclusive Henry Darger was a genius of stammering achievement”. Yet some people have called Henry Darger’s work ‘junk’ and suggest that the only reason Darger had achieved his celebrity was because his work was popularized as the lurid product of an eccentric recluse.

Given this kind of recognition, I don’t believe that Henry Darger’s popularity can be considered an unwarranted cultural aberration, but it is also true that it has been primarily as an ‘outsider artist’ that he has become famous. The term, ‘outsider art’, first coined by art critic, Roger Cardinal in 1972 to describe the art of the insane, has come to refer to self taught artists who create unconventional, idiosyncratic artwork outside the institutions of the mainstream art world. The term now includes folk art and naïve art as well as the art of the insane. I will argue in this paper that, although Darger may be overly lionized - and demonized - as everything from a creative genius to a serial killer - in spite of his personal and artistic eccentricities, a study of his paintings will show that they are not essentially unlike those of mainstream Western artists. Not only does he use his resource material, subject matter and techniques as they do; his compositions are also traditionally Western. Even psychological problems such as his can be found in artists throughout Western art history. It is primarily because he was not part of the art establishment - that is, his work was never exhibited in commercial art galleries or public museums during his lifetime – as well as the seemingly strange nature of his work, that his work has been considered as ‘outside’ the bounds of traditional art. If familiarity generates sensibility, then perhaps our perception will have changed sufficiently so that we can recognize, as Danto maintains, the magnitude of his achievement. The extravagant publicity about his peculiar personality, his history and the gruesome content of some of his work should not interfere with that recognition. The issue as to whether Henry Darger’s work deserves serious consideration exists only for those who know nothing about its history.

II

The use of the word, “junk”, to mean that Darger’s work is meaningless or worthless is ignorant in the sense that it indicates an unawareness of the different kinds of nontraditional art that have become part of the history of the modern art world both as art objects worthy of display in galleries and museums in their own right and as influences on the work of recognized Western ‘fine’ artists during the last 150 years. It also shows unfamiliarity with the extensive literature interpreting such images, whether ‘fine’ art or not. The issue should be, not whether such art has meaning or value, but rather how has art that does not seem to fit into any traditional art canon come to be interpreted? What meanings have been found for images that appeared to ignore traditional art criteria and were oblivious to historical fine art styles? Such images showed no awareness of the philosophical and formal issues which have dominated Western art. They were not made out of traditional materials or used such materials in untraditional ways. They did not serve western social functions, have not been exhibited in galleries or museums, reviewed by art critics or included in art history books. How should we view them aesthetically?

The issue is significant in that such art includes most of the images made during human history - the images made in what was formerly called ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ societies, in non-western and pre-Renaissance civilizations as well as paintings made by children, the insane, and, most recently, by untrained or self-taught artists. Professional mainstream artists learn traditional techniques and concepts in art schools, by studying with established professional artists, examining the art in museums and galleries, looking at reproductions in art publications, reading what the critics and historians have to say, conversing with other artists and so forth. They can choose or modify the styles available to them. They can even reject such styles, demonstrating that that they knew the traditional rules before they broke them. Their main ambition is, generally, to establish an identifiably personal (and saleable) style that is distinguishable, but not too different, from all the others. Artists like Henry Darger made art in entirely different environments.

The history of Western art is that of trained artists working for established social institutions or private collectors. The judgments of the resulting styles have varied from time to time. The labels, Gothic, Mannerism, Baroque, Impressionism and Cubism, for example, all originally indicated negative judgments. The reputations of artists such as Titian, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Monet and Picasso have had their ups and downs. Even Leonardo has not always been considered great. But the controversies over their value has always been within the institutions of art, a competition between artists who work, or want to work, for the church, the monarchies and aristocracies, for the state, the galleries and museums or the private collectors. The issues over which they competed were articulated and debated in what they and their commentators said and published. With the introduction of nontraditional art objects, the whole aesthetic canon was challenged since there was no place for these strange, exotic objects.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, all such imagery was considered to be the crude, artistically worthless products of uncivilized savages, of unschooled, unaffected children and naive adults or the meaningless doodling of psychotics. The Romantic Movement changed all that with its emphasis on the expression of emotion and imagination over reason, its notion of the “mad genius”, its rejection of established, usually classical, art forms, and its rebellion against conventional European social rules. During the early 20th century, European artists found formal and expressive inspiration in the arts of Africa, Oceana, Egypt, China, Japan and Catalonia. Psychiatrists began to study the art of institutionalized psychotics as symptomatic of states of mind and the publications of these psychologists caused some artists to see in the art of the insane a liberating disregard for cultural customs and as ‘intrepid explorers of new artistic landscapes’. (As far back as 1812, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, felt that the development of insanity could sometimes unearth hidden artistic talents. He wrote that insanity could throw “upon its surface precious and splendid fossils, the existence of which was unknown to the proprietors of the soil in which they were buried.”) Paintings by the insane, selected for their special artistic qualities, were seen to offer direct access to the world untrammeled by the inhibitions of society. They were revelations of subconscious reality which was more profound than that presented in mundane perceptions of the outer world. We cannot look at the work of the Fauves, the Cubists, the Expressionists and the Dadaists or the work of Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Dali without recognizing such influences.

Jean Dubuffet, founder of the art movement, Art Brut, or Raw Art, derived from the art of the insane, characterized Art Brut as:

Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses - where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere - are, because of these very facts, more precious than the production of professions.

Folk art was discovered. Children’s art was found to be, not only expressive, but also beautiful. Paul Klee, who was much influenced by the art of children, wrote:

In our own time worlds have opened up which not everyone can see into, although they too are part of nature. Perhaps it’s really true that only children, madmen and savages see into them.

Even as far back as 1884, the famous French artist and teacher of Matisse, Gustave Moreau, wrote:

The dreams of children, of the senses, monstrous dreams, melancholy dreams, dreams that carry the spirit and the soul into unknown spaces, into the mystery of gloom…

III

Henry Darger had many of these characteristics. During his life, he had no contact with the art world. As far as we know, he never was in an art museum or saw an art book so that the images he created and the techniques he used are uninfluenced by any historical art style. He never exhibited or sold his artwork in a commercial art gallery. He was considered to be a mentally limited, childish eccentric who created verbal and visual images of a fantasy world so bizarre that they became fit subjects for psychoanalytical analysis.

Many people are disturbed by representations of violence against nude little girls, many with male genitalia (although such images are found in less than 5% of the hundreds of paintings he made), but the compulsion to see created images as symptoms of psychic causes has led some psychiatrists to conclusions (or conjectures) that are more bizarre than their subjects. For example, on the basis of only paintings and writings, one writer refers to the “maternally pre-oedipal world” and “polymorphous perversion” and “paranoid schizophrenic” in his work. Issues of confused sexuality, masturbation and castration are raised and, of course, his paintings are loaded with phallic and vaginal symbols. All these elements are projected from his traumatic history into his work and by reading his imagery as symbolizing the states of mind associated with that history. The Canadian art-historian and psychotherapist, John MacGregor, in a 720 page book called, Henry Darger: In The Realm of the Unreal, argued that Darger was a serial killer in effect if not in fact. He wrote that Darger was “posed on the edge of violent and irrational sadistic and murderous activity…Whether or not they were acted upon, these are the ongoing fantasies of a serial killer.” “…we do not know whether, at some point in his life, … he [acted] on these impulses in reality”. In order to understand Darger, MacGregor must move “…into the rarified mental history of a serial killer” and “…Darger’s psyche is arguably the mind of a serial killer made visible.” MacGregor also wrote that “The possibility that Darger committed the 1911 murder [of Elsie Paroubek, the basis for his Annie Aronburg character] should not be dismissed without examination.” It seems to me that it is the mind of MacGregor that ought to be analyzed. All these interpretations may be interesting in their own right, but have no more relevance to the quality, and even the meaning, of Darger’s work than the psyches of any other artist have to their work.

IV

It would be a mistake to focus only on what is abnormal in Darger’s life. Darger did not live primarily in a fantasy world, although certainly a fantasy world was an important part of his life. He talked to himself, had tantrums, but his writings indicate that there was perhaps only one time when he seemed to believe that what he wrote might affect events in the real world. He was not insane in that there is absolutely no evidence that, other than that one time, in spite of his troubled history, he confused the world he lived in with the world he created in his writing and his painting. The reality represented in a work of art is not the reality of an artist. Darger functioned in the real world, albeit in a limited way. His reality was St. Joseph’s Hospital, the Grant and Alexian Brothers hospitals where he worked at different times as a janitor, dishwasher and bandage wrapper, the Catholic (St. Patrick’s?) Church where he went to mass several times a day and helped out, Roma’s Restaurant where he ate meals, the alleys where he scrounged for Pepto-Bismol bottles, tin foil and string, the room on Webster St. where he worked and slept for 40 years, Nate and Kiyoko Lerner and so forth. The reality in his art was what happened to the fictional Vivian Girls.

Darger’s public behavior, while eccentric, was never maniacal. By all appearances according to the people who knew him, he was a gentle, sometimes cantankerous, but harmless man who fantasized while he was working at his art in the privacy of his room, which is what many artists do (or would like to do.). There is no objective support for the idea that he acted on the atrocities described in his work any more than there is for atrocious behavior by Michelangelo, Callot, Kolwitz, Goya, Bosch, Brueghel, Dix, Grosz, Lozansky and the Medieval and Renaissance painters and other Catholic artists who described the martyrdom of the Saints. All of these artists described the same kinds of horrors - mutilations, disembowelments, strangulations, decapitations - depicted by Darger. It is a terrible and sometimes tragic mistake to confuse someone’s fantasy life or the images they create with their behavior in the real world.

While Darger thought of himself as an artist, he probably was not aware of traditional fine art images (although a reproduction of a painting, Thunderstorm over Narragansett Bay, by Martin Johnston Heade, exhibited at the Art Institute in 1945, appears in one of his paintings). He was, however, familiar with those found in popular culture. He collected advertisements, comic strips, children’s book illustrations, coloring books, game boards, cartoons and pictures from newspapers and magazines. So did Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Salle and Golub. Even in the 19th and early 20th century, artists like Manet, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso and others worked from photographs and other images from popular culture.

Darger knew what was going on in the world. He was interested in current events; he read newspapers and magazines. He knew about world wars, crime in Chicago. He was knowledgeable about the Civil War. His book collection contained not only books on the Civil War, but also a surprising number of well known books. In his room after his death were found the Wizard of Oz , Alice in Wonderland, Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Curiosity Shop and A Christmas Carol. There was also Cervantes, Don Quixote, with illustrations by Gustave Dore’, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Spyri’s Heidi, Tarkington’s, Penrod and Sam and others. His written work contains references, not only to the Oz books and Dickens’s works, but also to Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Dante’s Inferno, the poetry of Robert Southey, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Francis Thompson. At one point in his novel, he refers to a study by psychologist William James regarding the way people respond to natural disasters. The uniforms worn by military combatants in his paintings are accurate descriptions of those worn by Civil War and WWI soldiers. He created imaginary animals derived from illustrated books on zoology. He may have even used anatomy books for his descriptions of evisceration. His sources may not have come from the history of art, but they certainly were not improper. They were not that different from those used by other artists and he used them in similar ways.

The techniques Darger used in making his paintings are also similar to those used by other Western artists. Although some people maintain that Darger had no or mediocre drawing skills, according to Brooke Davis Anderson, Director and Curator of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, Darger was a capable draftsman as demonstrated by his more than 500 “delicate and sensitive” pencil and pen sketches and studies (sometimes called tracings) executed on tracing, typing, wax and drawing paper in the museum’s collection. He would trace from his vast collection of source images, often modifying contours, reversing images moving limbs and changing clothing. He sometimes had his source images photographically reproduced and enlarged to fit his compositions; there are more than 100 negatives and photo enlargements in the museum’s archive. Where he thought appropriate, he would cut out and paste the original print onto the painting, a technique called ‘collage’ in the art world. He used traditional poster paints and children’s cake watercolors to color his paintings, materials most probably purchased in art stores. (The artist, Andrew Epstein, claims to have left him oil sticks and markers)

Many of Darger’s compositions are extremely complex. They are never traced. They consist of arrangements of separate images derived from his collection of hundreds of clippings – girls, soldiers, clouds, plants and flowers. What is unusual about them is, not only their originality, but that they are represented in a three-dimensional, photographic space. They use horizon lines. Figures and objects diminish in size with distance. They overlap; move in intricate patterns in three-dimensional space. Such representational devices are counter intuitive and are almost never seen in the work of untrained artists. This would indicate that he probably studied the space found in photographs and traditional three-dimensional representations, a rather sophisticated approach to picture making. In his later works, he also developed a way of representing sequential events in his narrative by describing these events simultaneously in a horizontal series from left to right. This method of story-telling was used by Hellenistic and Medieval artists as well as early Renaissance fresco painters such as Masaccio in Florence and Piero della Francesco in his Arezzo murals. It is highly unlikely that Darger ever saw reproductions of these works, although something like this device is found in some comic strips. He also used what Gombrich called a “chorus effect” where a group of figures leads you to focus elsewhere, such as in Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. His color often embellishes the emotional content of the events being described in the painting.

The most controversial aspect of Darger’s work is the interpretations of his psychology based on his paintings and writings (or his public appearance and behavior). This, of course, is often done with artists. From Freud on, art and behavior has been used as entry into the creative process, but this literature is infinitesimal compared with the vast amounts of historical and critical writings focusing on the traditional artworks themselves. Just the opposite is true when it comes to “outsider” artists like Henry Darger where a painting often becomes a symptom rather than a work of art. If Darger had serious psychological problems, so did many other successful professional artists and such problems should not be considered a distinguishing characteristic.

According to Kay Jamison, in her book, Touched by Fire, artists and writers have suffered disproportionately from manic depression and Cyclothymia. (a weaker version of manic depression). In one study, the rate of psychiatric conditions, primarily depression (including bi-polar) were compared within different fields:

  • Poets – 50%
  • Musicians – 38%
  • Painters – 20%
  • Sculptors – 18%
  • Architects – 17%

Famous writers and artists show a pattern of mood disorders and even hospitalizations and suicides. According to another study, writers and poets are four times more likely than others to suffer from affective disorders, particularly, manic depression. The poets, Dickenson, Elliot and Poe suffered from it. (Elliot also may have been schizophrenic) So did writers Balzac, Conrad, Dickens, Emerson, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Ibsen, Melville and Tolstoy. John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Wolfe were suicides.

Many artists and sculptors are also afflicted with affective disorders. Michelangelo, Paul Gauguin, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston , William Baziotes and Georgia O’Keefe suffered from depression. Also probably did Gorky, Motherwell, Kline and Smith. Pollock, Rothko, Kline, Guston, DeKooning, Motherwell and Smith were to varying degrees alcoholics. Van Gogh, Gorky, Rothko and probably Pollack and David Smith were suicides.

In a book called “Born Under Saturn”, Rudolf and Margot Wittkower record anecdotes describing the eccentricities of artists from Antiquity to the French Revolution. Among section titles are “Tribulations of Mind and Body”, Cleanliness Mania”, “Weird Hobbies” and” “Genius and Madness”. In spite of their psychological problems, all were accepted by art critics and historians as legitimate mainstream artists.

My point is not to suggest that artists are crazy, but rather that Henry Darger was not crazier than many successful, acceptable, mainstream artists. He may have been a dirty old man. He may have been bi-polar in that he described periods of extreme rage followed by passivity. He may even at times been schizophrenic or paranoid. There is no question that he struggled with conflicting states of mind, but, unlike some mainstream artists, he was not alcoholic and seemed never to have contemplated suicide. (It may even be true that, as Jameson suggests, much excellent creative work is done during the manic phase of bi-polar disease. Even the conservative, 19th century American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens said, “What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art”) In any event, what ever psychological turmoil he experienced is irrelevant to the judgment of his work. A comedian does not have to be happy in order to be funny or a composer unhappy to write sad music. An artist’s psychological states of mind may affect what he does, but they do not determine its quality.

V

“Outsider art” like Darger’s can now be exhibited, collected and judged because it fits the contemporary, subjective criteria which it helped create. In the early 19th century, some psychotic art was selected for display, not because it was personal, symbolic and expressionistic, but rather because it was conventionally representational. Darger became famous when the art world became more interested in the emotional, sometimes irrational, life of the artist than his artwork. It found that Darger’s paintings and writings offered fertile ground for interpretations of its assumed abnormal psychological content. Focusing primarily on what may have been abnormal in Darger, however, distorts our understanding of his work. By selection, we could turn Darger into a painter of delightful landscapes rather than a pervert if we exhibited only his pictures of flowers, trees and butterflies.

As we become familiar with nontraditional artworks, their strangeness disappears and we become sensitive to qualities we missed before. We can now discriminate levels of excellence whereas before we rejected the whole genre. The distinction between categories like ‘outsider’ and ‘mainstream’ art becomes less distinct and similarities more apparent. How would we respond to Darger’s paintings if we knew nothing of his history, his psychology and especially the hype surrounding him? Would we be able to distinguish them from mainstream paintings? According to any neutral assessment, Darger, whether we like his work or not, becomes a remarkable artist who created hundreds of provocative, sometimes beautiful paintings, a 15,145 page novel comparable to Alice in Wonderland, 5000 pages of autobiography, and much more. But also, according to these criteria, it would be a mistake to idealize 40 years of Darger’s paintings as all masterpieces any more than is for the work of Renoir, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Like theirs, some of Darger’s work is weak, washed out and awkward, but some of his paintings are beautifully composed masterpieces, deserving the recognition, if not the hype.

Epilogue

An indication of his acceptance by the mainstream art world is that some students at the Art Institute are avid ‘followers’ of Darger and see him as the founder of a new art style.

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© 2014 Leopold Segedin. All rights reserved.