When the landlord, Nathan Lerner, one March day in 1973 opened the door of the tenant who had lived there as long as Nathan could remember, his only idea was to get rid of all the junk he assumed had accumulated during the long and lonely years since the tenant first had made the room his home. Henry Darger was his name. A short while ago he had gotten ill and admitted to one of Chicago’s catholic missions. He was 82 years old. He had no family, no friends. He was a very religious man. Few had been in his room since he moved to the small tenement building some time in 1932. He kept to himself.
Henry was born in 1892, probably in April. His mother died in labour four years later, and he never got to see his sister, who was adopted. Maybe that’s why he later kept away from women. One of them could be his sister.
His father, an easygoing tailor, wasn’t capable of taking care of little Henry. He was placed in an orphanage at the age of eight. His father died a few years later.
Henry took a substantial interest in the weather. He hated one of his fellow pupils, John Manley, and he played the clown, making strange noises. He got the nickname “Crazy”. The teachers were just as bad as the pupils. Henry quarrelled often with them about facts of the civil war. Henry knew how many had died in each and every skirmish and battle. Many years later he was to say about his teachers that they were “dust beneath my feet”.
At the orphanage he eventually was diagnosed as mentally ill. “Little Henry does not have his heart in the right place”, a doctor wrote. Consequently, he was sent to the Illinois Home for Feeble Minded Children. “Me, a retard! I knew more than the whole bunch of them”, he later wrote in his diary. Henry tried to run away several times, but not untill he was 17 were his efforts crowned with success, and he escaped. He made it back to Chicago and took the odd job here and there. In 1913 he saw “The Easter Tornado” completely eradicate the small township of Countybrown, Illinois.
As USA got deeper into the first world war, Henry was drafted. He was 25 years old and not unwilling. A few months later, in December 1917, he was honorably discharged. Physically and mentally unfit for duty, said the papers. Henry was furious. He needed a war, he needed his own war.
Fiftyfive years passed. The gay and roaring twenties turned into the sad but no less roaring thirties. A new world war did not affect him. He had his own war on his mind. No one paid much attention to him. If you looked into his eyes, what would you see? He took a job washing dishes, he sold ice cream, he worked as a janitor at a catholic hospital. He worked 14 hours a day and every day he went to mass. He slept very little.
His landlord, who bought the building in 1956, chose to be lenient with the tenant that came with the deed. Whether in the night sounds came from his appartment, whether he did not always pay his rent, Henry stayed on. Nathan Lerner was involved in the artscene of Chicago, and he encouraged a certain kind of bohemian behaviour among his tenants. One time he arranged a birthdaycelebration for Henry, but the party did not move into Henry’s room.
In 1973 Henry had seen enough of the century. He had not participated in it. After having been moved to the Mission, he lost both the energy and the will to live. The overcrowded single room, there, on the fifth floor of 851 Webster Avenue, had been his life. Nathan realized that Henry would never return, and opened the door to what he had assumed would be an enormous solitude. He was helped by a neighbour, David Berglund, and together they waded through quite a bit of flotsam and some jetsam, multitudes of seemingly random belongings.
They started by throwing two full loads into a container. Thousands of meters of twine, gathered and tied together, who knows from which back alleys, patiently fished from what number of gutters? Bottles and tools for a purpose only known in Henry’s head. The only space to sit, a broken wooden chair in the middle of the room. Crucifixes and small statues of the virgin Mary, wherever one looked. The walls completely covered with newspaper clippings about incidents and events very few would like to remember. From a bottomless pile an odd shape drew Davids attention. He pulled up an enormous book, bound by hand. It was too big to open inside the room. Judging by its size, it was written for or by a giant.
The work of more than forty years revealed itself between the covers. Parchment and paper glued together into huge ledgers, long rolls of paper, canvases unheard of and never seen by unfamiliar eyes. Paintings, drawings, collages, watercolours. The colours spectacular, the motives no less; genuine and disturbing. Innocence and horror side by side. Little girls, often naked or partly undressed, with guns or rifles in hand, or sometimes without guns, some with a butterfly’s wings, others with curved horns on their foreheads. Most of them equipped with small children’s penises. Maybe Henry was inspired by the saintly paintings of baby Jesus, or maybe he was unfamiliar with any other anatomy than his own. Demons, soldiers, blood and lots and lots of bad weather further filled the primitive canvases. Everything put together with all the care in this or any world.
Lerner, who was a connoiseur of art, immediately realized that this had value. I don’t think he thought about money, not then. When Henry died, Lerner had the rights to everything in the room. It turned out that the pictures were not all. They were merely illustrations to the longest work of fiction we know about. Henry’s closely written magnum opus consisted of 15145 pages of sometimes joy, most times rage. The title was not short neither: “The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion”.
The satanic Glandelians have proclaimed war on their catholic neighbours and they torture and mutilate millions, among whom we find the seven princesses known as the Vivian-sisters. However, the evil general of the Glandelians, John Manley, is constantly being opposed by giant dragonlike creatures known as Blengians and the brave and valorous captain Henry Darger. Captain Darger saves the girls from certain destruction and delivers them from harm. Countless battles and further cruelties ensue. Darger is sometimes on the side of good, sometimes he is bad. Henry wrote two endings to his tale, if tale it can be called. In one, christianity and the Vivian-sisters are victorious. The other end witnessed the defeat of the girls and the world thrown into godlessness.
“The author writes the scene in this volume as if he had experienced them himself”, Henry wrote in the foreword to one of the volumes. Maybe this is the key to understand his production, although there might be better words for what he left than production. For Henry this was not art, or something he wished to communicate to the world. It was not a construction of reality, but reality itself. This was how he survived those years, all his years. He existed only while creating. Or, to put it another way: He was what he created. In an eternal dialogue with God, he raged and discussed His Creation. Who can say who won that discussion? Who can say he has tried as hard?
No one has read the work entire, all the 13 volumes that Henry started sometime after 1910. The psychiatrist and biographer John MacGregor used 12 years to study Darger’s world, but not even he could read through it all. Apart from his primary work, Henry wrote a sequel of well over 8000 pages. He also wrote an autobiography, of which the first 206 pages are dedicated to his childhood and the remaining 4878 describe an imaginary tornado he baptized “Sweety Pie”. And on top of this he wrote his diary and random notes in which he general chose to write about the weather.
If it hadn’t been for his output as a painter, Darger would probably have remained a mere curiousity, and not even much of that. When his writings, though, are seen in connection to his pictures, I think we can glance a portrait of a human life lived outside society, with other thoughts than our own, with other worlds, worlds that we can’t claim to dream up even in our most fervent and wonderful nights, and, at times, terrible. His pictures are truly beautiful. Some of them are frightening. Many of them will give offence to those that seek offence. They are different and they are not made for us or our judgement, but for Henry himself. Maybe that’s why they mean something, maybe that’s why they are important.
These days, Henry Darger is mostly known as perhaps the foremost practitioner of so-called Outsider Art. The Art Brut exhibition in Lausanne own more than 20 of his pictures. The American Folk Art– collection of New York can claim most of the rest of his work, including all the written material. They opened their Henry Darger Study Centre in 2002. A documentary film about him has been made, as well as a biography and several books about his art.
When his neighbour, David Berglund, visited Henry in the retirement home a week before his death, he mentioned to the pale and ill figure what they had found in his room. Henry looked unspeakably sad. “It’s too late now. It belongs to Mr. Lerner”, he said.