Henry Darger: A Storm Cloud of the 20th Century

Henry Darger, Untitled (Strangled child in the sky), n.d. Watercolor and pencil on paper, 23 × 43 1/2 inches. Gift of the artist's estate in honor of Klaus Biesenbach. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

One could say the seed of my interest in Henry Darger goes back to my youth in Northwest Indiana, watching the thunder storm skies gathering. I remember how the atmosphere would grow low and close, infused with that peculiar yellow-green color that announced the possibility of tornadoes. On such occasions we would hide in the basement until the warnings passed. I’d seen one or two funnel clouds in my time, and I’d seen the damage they could do. Those skies always held a sublime fascination for me in the tension they held between chaos and order.

Another catalyst to my Darger interest, was my Wordsworthian fascination with the lives of hermits, recluses, and the unknown and uncelebrated oddballs who lived alone on the fringes of society. There was always a voyeuristic if perverse thrill to finding a box of old letters or a discarded manuscript or even some amateur paintings while searching through an abandoned house or a deserted cabin. Darger’s work, of course, was famously discovered after his death, in the excavation of his Chicago apartment and one can imagine the thrill of being the person who opened that door.

When I discovered the work of Henry Darger, it was the end of the ’70s and I was living in Chicago in Wicker Park. I read a review of his work and decided to visit the gallery. While the paintings were impressive and weird, it was the story of the artist I found fascinating—a traumatic and transient youth who developed into a solitary creative genius of sorts—secretive, obsessive, and vast in his creative ambition. Being a writer/recluse at the time, his story reinforced a certain romantic ideal for me. I associated him with someone like the Facteur Cheval with his Palais Idéal. But Darger’s palace was constructed from his wild volumes of prose and his paintings.

 Some have compared him to William Blake, creating his illustrated cosmic war of psychic entities. Indeed, Darger’s written masterwork—The Realms of the Unreal— has the necessary epic sweep of a Paradise Lost, a Mahabharata, or a The Book of Urizen. Many would say it’s an amateurish version, and that’s true. But what mattered to me was the epic attempt combined with the humble nature of its production. And Darger did manage to merge personal obsession with a potent and critical worldview. His aesthetic of violent increase and repetition, combined with his apocalyptic vision were acutely attuned to the modern media world that was in its birth throes at the time. And, of course, he does seem to prophesy both class war and the revenge of nature, which are thoroughly modern concerns.

Henry Darger was a fringe-dwelling man who fanned his personal spark of revolution into a flame that served both to validate and eventually expand that life into legend. Of course, he could not have foreseen the iconic figure he would become. But that is another sort of romantic dream—the desire for validation after death. For many contemporary artists and writers he may well symbolize exactly that hope of posthumous discovery. Artistic isolation can be a matter of choice, or fate. Some are merely condemned to it. Others choose to be free from the public eye, and the commercial influence of the mob. Who knows if Henry desired fame or felt any anxiety about influence, but he did feel he had a mission in his art, along with a belief that humility can profoundly affect the world. 

In the years since that early gallery show, Darger indeed grew famous. I came to his work again, decades later, when I was exposed to the vast expanding energy of his writings. Upon discovering his autobiography was really the story of an apocalyptic tornado with a human head—a “strangle headed child cloud”—those tornado skies of my youth returned to mind and I was immediately sure that this was a path of research I wanted to pursue. It combined all my interests at the time: the Romantic sublime, Chaos and Systems Theory, public and private trauma, sacrifice, the construction of the self, the relationship between materialism and creativity.

Admittedly, there are dark and torturous corners in Darger’s life, gaps and mysteries that can be filled in by the viewer’s desires. Today there are many cults of Darger, each who would claim him for their particular agendas: Catholicism, Gay Pride, even the darker cultish interests of murder and sexual obsession. People will always project their own agendas into the gaps and silences in other people’s lives and of course I am no different. But no artist, especially Henry Darger, can be effectively contained by the agendas of others; that’s a kind of freedom he created for himself, and one to be admired.

Contributor

Carl Watson

Carl Watson is a poet and a novelist. He lives in New York.

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