For most of his life, Henry Darger was employed as a janitor in Catholic hospitals. Come night, he gave expression to a private, aggressively original imaginary world—working from his small rented room in Chicago’s North Side. Over a period of more than 50 years, Darger created a magnum opus consisting of a 15,000-page illustrated saga titled “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion” (commonly referred to as “In the Realms of the Unreal”). The 13-volume manuscript is reenacted in more than 300 watercolors and collages depicting the adventures of seven innocent heroines, the Vivian Girls, as they lead the rebellion against the evil, child-enslaving, adult Glandelinians.
Darger’s landscapes set the ambience for his tales of good versus evil; they are at once romantic, poetic, and often violent. The artist meticulously configured his compositions using tracings from the newspaper clippings and magazine illustrations he collected. He paid particular attention to visual space and perspective, utilizing a copy machine to size his figures relative to their placement within the picture plane. The artist’s extraordinary talent as a colorist and his dynamic compositions combine to create a formal beauty that renders even brutal imagery sublime. Some of his works evoke scenes of Civil War-torn battlefields—which he reputedly studied—complete with blustering winds, sleeting rain, and turbulent clouds (the artist kept a daily weather journal for 10 years). The Vivian girls engage in violent battles against the evil Glandelinian Army, they brave tornadoes and blazing forests, are strangled by clouds in the sky, and even “disappear through the earth” in miraculous escapes. Other works are bucolic, featuring imaginary places with fairytale-like names such as “Finger Mountain,” “Peppermint Place,” “Onion City” and “Mistletoe Station,” set within Darger’s Catholic land of Angelina.
Darger is perhaps the most well-known self-taught American artist; his works held in numerous museum and private collections in the United States and abroad. He has been the subject of numerous major museum exhibitions and retrospectives, including the American Folk Art Museum in New York (1997 and 2010), Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago (2003), and The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo (2007), among others. In June 2012, Kiyoko Lerner (holder of Darger’s estate) donated 13 double-sided Darger drawings to the MoMA in honor of Klaus Biesenbach, who curated “Disasters of War” at MoMA PS1 (2000), which presented works by Darger alongside those of Goya and Jake and Dinos Chapman.