The book, which had the full title ‘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’ was the work of hospital janitor Henry Darger, who had been slaving obsessively over it for some sixty years. He illustrated the key moments of the story in enormous paintings – some over ten foot long. Since Darger’s death his artworks have been widely exhibited internationally as key examples of the phenomenon known as ‘Outsider art’.
‘Outsider art’ refers to work produced entirely outside the art world. Its practitioners have had no formal training, and their work is therefore unencumbered by prevailing traditions and artistic trends.
The themes of the book are clearly rooted in Darger’s own sad, brutal childhood. His mother died when he was a baby, his sister was adopted, and the infant Darger was raised by a partly disabled father. At the age of 8, with his father now too ill to care for him, he was placed in a boys home. The young Henry was extremely intelligent but, displaying odd behaviour (possibly Tourettes syndrome), he was assessed and eventually sent to a home for ‘feeble minded’ children. He was forced to do mundane agricultural work and, intensely unhappy, tried several times to run away. At the age of seventeen he successfully escaped from the home and walked to Chicago – where he found the first of the lowly paid cleaning jobs he would use to support himself for the rest of his life.
Those who knew Darger remember him as an intensely private, uncommunicative person. He had no friends, and never entered into any social interaction by choice. Attempts to chat with him were waved off with the muttered plea – “just leave me alone”. Miserably poor, he dressed in old worn out clothes. No-one was ever admitted to his flat, and he never showed anyone his work.
Darger’s fantasy world was all consuming. His landlords, Kiyoko and Nathan Lerner theorize that he only slept a few hours each night. His bed was seldom used, instead he would work at his chair until sleep overtook him where he sat. Without the distraction of a television or a radio, every spare hour he lived was spent with the Vivian girls. The Lerners heard babbling conversations coming from his room. Behind closed doors the usually monosyllabic Darger came alive, carrying out entire imaginary conversations in different accents and tones of voice for hours on end.
As Darger was self taught, he had to invent his own techniques for visualizing his characters. He collected old books, magazines and newspapers (sometimes rifling through bins to find them). Anything he suspected might be useful as reference material was carefully cut out and pasted into telephone directories. The paintings were made under the most astonishing economy of means – on the cheapest butchers paper, with sheets glued together to extend the canvas. The paints were childrens poster colours, applied with crude synthetic brushes. Nothing was wasted; Darger always painted on both sides of the precious sheets. Figurative elements were collaged in or traced from his enormous reference stash. Nevertheless his complex and highly sophisticated figure compositions, expressed in beautiful and bold colour schemes, successfully transcend all their technical limitations.
The pictures aren’t always pretty. Some represent the gore and mutilation of the battlefield, or the mass executions of child slaves. Even in less gory panels, there is a creepy, unsettling aspect to the pairing of his innocent reference material (cutesy girly pictures from childrens colouring books) with broader themes of suffering and slavery. Scenes, too, in which the Vivian girls are portrayed nude carry their own mystery – the girls are shown with penises. Did Darger even know the difference between male and female?
A cursory glance at Darger’s pictures also raises the inevitable question ‘was this man insane?’ Commentators argue that there are no signs of insanity. He was perfectly in control of his life – able to attend work each day and function as a normal (if reclusive) citizen. His imagination was fertile, but never fevered. He seemed capable of separating fantasy and reality, without ever allowing the boundaries to blur.
Darger succeeded in completing his novel before he died – but he left us with an enigma. He wrote how the bloody war ended in victory for the Christians and the end of child slavery… then promptly wrote a second, alternative ending where the child slavers win and the Vivian girls are defeated. After six decades of struggle, perhaps even he couldn’t decide whether the forces of good or evil should prevail.
For me, Darger’s story is both tragic and inspiring. It’s tragic to think of a young person brutalized by their childhood to the extent that they would choose to cut the cord on human interaction. It’s tragic, too, to think of a fertile talent whose fruits were never seen, nurtured or appreciated. Surely Darger would like to have known that his pictures brought pleasure to others. Doesn’t it seem cruel that history denied him the chance? And yet it’s undeniably inspiring to think that a pure form of creativity can manifest itself in the world with such power that it can exist alone - a solitary flame burning over many decades without recognition or praise, yet still an end in itself. Darger achieved what every creative person dreams of but few ever achieve. He succeeded in channeling his personal sadness into a self-sustaining beauty and mystery which will far outlive his biography. A penniless man, he lived a life far richer than most of us ever will.