Henry Darger by Klaus Biesenbach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Henry Darger, recluse, artist, obsessive, crazed man-child, is one of the more intriguing figures I've encountered in my limited exposure to "outsider" art. Darger was an outsider in several ways. Socially, he was a recluse, choosing to spend most of his non-working hours (working as a dishwasher and janitor in different hospitals through his adult life) working on a history, of sorts, of a series of wars and events in a world whose only visitor was Darger himself, until he requested to be admitted to St. Augustine's Home for the Aged in 1972, about a year before his death. The man assigned to clear out Darger's "trash" was stunned to find a 5-decade-in-the-making collection of art and writings that the old man had left behind.
Darger was obsessive, crazed, even. This becomes clear upon reading both the essays about him contained in Henry Darger and in his own autobiographical writings, a section of which is contained in the book in the form of facsimiles of his own typewritten manuscript. Darger had suffered several tough breaks in his younger days, his mother died giving birth to his sister, who was immediately put up for adoption, he was an antisocial young man and was institutionalized at the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children upon the death of his father. Three times he ran away from the asylum, finally succeeding in his escape by walking most of the way from central Illinois to Chicago, where he disappeared into anonymity until the year before his death.
Darger hardly mentions his own art in his autobiography. But his art is what fascinates me about the man.
I'm not much of an artist. I like to draw, but I'm not great at it. Writing is my creative outlet.
I have a great deal of respect for those who toil over their visual artwork, and toil Darger did. His works were vast, some of them twelve feet wide, multimedia compositions using carbon pencil tracings of cartoons, watercolors, and collage, all mashed together in a style unique to the man. His drawings record the events of several wars in which the "Vivian Girls," quasi-angelic young girls, assist a child-slave uprising against their adult masters, who are in the midst of a war among themselves. Time is cyclical, though, and attempts to provide a timeline from one painting to the next are problematic, at best. Geography is also laden with difficulties, though Darger did draw maps that make Tolkien's seem uncomplicated, even cursory, in comparison. There is no plot, per se, and though key characters might have unique names, it is frankly difficult to distinguish all but a few key players from one another.
If this sounds like a mass ball of confusion, that's because it is. Darger's own autobiographical sketch is fraught with issues - geography "slips", portions of incidents repeat themselves in other incidents, and the autobiography ends in a thousands-of-pages long (no one seems to know exactly how many) narrative about a tornado named Sweetie Pie that sweeps the midwest with destruction (fires and toxic smoke, as well as the "normal" damage one would expect from a super-tornado) ending only when Sweetie Pie is put on trial.
Yes, on trial . . .
And yet, there is an underlying unity, a crazily-sewn thread that seems to tie all of this together, the essence of the man Henry Darger. This is what I admire so much about the man and his work - it is so uniquely his. He didn't create for any audience, received no financial remuneration for his work (though all indications point to his work being worth quite a lot of money), he was never lauded for his work during his lifetime - he simply did what he was possessed to do, create an imaginary world in which he lived for five decades, only coming out to visit our world for the necessity of a job that paid the bills.
The man was absolutely insane.
I admit it - I am more than a touch jealous of him, and terrified that, if things had been just a little different in my life, I might have, through my own creative endeavors, become like him. I find this tug between jealousy and horror not just a little invigorating.
Sometimes, towing that line between the sane stability of a family and a day job and the wild excursions my imagination takes while I am locked away writing is a tough thing to do. And while I don't anticipate losing hold of my sociality and reason, as Darger did, still, I feel a sort of affinity to the man.
Then I look at his art, which has a decidedly dark twist to it, and I feel a sense of revulsion at the many depictions of disemboweled, crucified children, along with the representations of adults strangling young girls, and I realize that I just can't relate.
I am paralyzed by ambiguity.
Why, then, does this book not receive my highest rating? Simply put, in the introduction, Biesenbach's pomposity knows no bounds. He engages in academic grandstanding that stretches the limits of believability, attributing other artist's motivations to Darger when there is no evidence that this was the case, though he does cite several instances where artists do explicitly acknowledge Darger's influence, as well. Still, Biesenbach's opening essay could easily have been cut in half, and the book would have been much better for it.
Let the art speak for itself!
But don't let my distaste for Biesenbach's essay stop you from reading this beautiful book. Be warned that there is a dark patch in the middle, and those who can't stomach some violence and gore will be hard-pressed to contain their unease - though Darger's art is mostly about children, this is NOT a children's book! These are the strangely-structured dreams of a disturbed mind, in all their horror and beauty, and I recommend them highly.
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