Excerpted from Phaidon's Raw Creation: Outsider Art & Beyond, here's a quick history of Henry Darger, one of the most mysterious and fascinating oustider artists in history.
It was in Chicago that in 1973 a monumental, if eerie, discovery was made. Henry Darger (1892-1973) was an elderly tenant of the photographer and designer Nathan Lerner. Darger left his lodging for an old people’s home and within six months had died. When Lerner prepared to clear his room, he found within it, stacked high all around, a mass of writings, pictures and papers.
Henry Darger had led an isolated life. Orphaned and institutionalized as a child, he found menial employment in Chicago hospitals. He had only one friend—a man who eventually moved away from Chicago—and spent most of his non-working life alone in his room. Partly to compensate for a daily life of loneliness and inconsequence, partly no doubt as a result of his own childhood sufferings, Darger began to build up a vast fantasy world. He started work on a monumental book in about 1910 based on the themes of war and the sufferings of innocent children: The Story of the Vivian Girls in what is known as The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War storm, caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The length of the title reflects the eventual length of the book: it ran to fifteen volumes totalling over 15,000 closely typed pages.
The work was full of extremely lengthy and explicit descriptions of vicious battles, tortures and executions. The victims were almost exclusively the child-slave rebels, the perpetrators the adult male soldiers of the evil Glandelinia. Eventually the forces of good, led by the Christian country of Abbiennia and by the heroines, the seven beautiful and brave Vivian sisters, were rewarded with victory, but not before horrible suffering had been endured:
"Naked opened bodies were seen lying about in the streets by the thousand. Indeed the screams and pleads of the victims could not be described, and the thousands of mothers went insane over the scene, or even committed suicide… About nearly 56,789 children were literally cut up like a butcher does a calf, after being strangled or slain… with their intestines exposed or gushed out… Hearts of children were hung by strings to the walls of houses, so many of the bleeding bodies had been cut up that they looked as if they had gone through a machine of knives."
The blood-soaked pages of The Realms of the Unreal are given some relief with descriptions of the beauty of the Vivian girls and their allies, the child-loving and protecting ‘Blengins,’ large creatures equipped with fairy wings. Darger even makes an appearance himself, as the valiant Captain Henry Darger, fighting to protect the child-slaves.
At some point Darger decided to branch out from his literary occupations to illustrate scenes from the book. Nathan Lerner found eighty-seven large watercolors, some 9 feet long, crudely stitched together to make three large books, and 67 smaller drawings. Many of the works were double sided, often with starkly contrasting scenes: the idyllic rural setting of little girls at play being backed by scenes of appalling carnage and dismemberment. Darger had little confidence in his drawing and used a patchwork collage to build up his compositions, which, however horrific in content, show a charm and delicacy lacking in his written epic. He traced figures from every possible source (above all, comics and mail order catalogues) and at some considerable expense had them photographically enlarged so that he could trace over them again and add them to his pictures. Embellishments such as items of clothing, weapons and even penises (for the little girls) were added in pencil or watercolor.
Nathan Lerner preserved Darger’s room much as he left it. In the mid-1990s the yellowing and decaying collage on the wall, the piles of paper, even his collection of bits of string, were much as they had been twenty years earlier.