Monday, May 17, 2010

The Henry Darger Room Collection

Guest Blogger:

Thea Liberty Nichols,
Arts administrator, independent curator and writer

Intuit’s installation is intended to shed light on Darger’s artistic practice through the contents and context of his studio. This glimpse into his working process is not intended to explain away or demystify his work (or to fetishize his belongings), but rather to amplify the reality of its creation, the tangible link between his epic In the Realms of the Unreal, and real life.

— Jessica Moss and Lisa Stone,
co-curators of The Henry Darger Room Collection

The Henry Darger Room Collection, housed within Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, is an evocation of the home and studio of Henry Darger (1892–1973). Darger lived in this modest one room space, formerly located on the second floor of 851 W. Webster St. in Chicago, from 1932 to 1972. Upon his death in 1973, his landlord Nathan Lerner began clearing away the contents of the room when he discovered Darger’s writing and artwork buried under floor to ceiling stacks of his obsessive collections of eyeglasses, piles of shoes and balls of strings.

Intuit staff and volunteers, affectionately dubbed “Darger’s Army,” salvaged, packed and transported many of the remaining objects in 2000, cataloging and preserving them along the way and eventually re-installing them as The Henry Darger Room Collection, completed in 2008.

Objects in the room aren’t sanitized or hermetically sealed away under glass and out of reach. Instead, they slump on side chairs, crowd shelves and decorate walls, enlivening the space and imbuing it with a distinct presence informed by Darger as an individual, and an artist.

Setting foot inside The Henry Darger Room Collection is like entering a time machine. Despite it’s context within Intuit, once past the threshold, visitors are transported into a gripping artist’s environment. Underfoot are salvaged hardwood floorboards, and the room is wrapped by darkly colored walls painted to resemble Darger’s unevenly soot-stained wallpaper. These embellishments provide a backdrop to many original architectural artifacts, including Darger’s well-worn wooden furniture and the cast iron fireplace, with its winking glazed tile and pitted oak mantel.

As in many artists’ homes and studios, Darger collected art and other visual phenomena that inspired him, such as religious statuettes and icons. They were proudly displayed on the mantel, peppered with some of his own works, which were also hung, tacked and even glued to the walls in his original room.

Darger’s workhorse Remington typewriter enjoys a well-earned prominence in the room. It was on this typewriter that he single space typed nine years worth of daily weather journals, several diaries, the 5,000 paged autobiography History of My Life, the 10,000 paged manuscript Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House, and, a work that he later illustrated with 300 watercolor and collage paintings, and for which he is probably best known, the stunning 15,000 page The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

Commonly referred to as simply In the Realms of the Unreal, Darger began work on this combined war story / quest epic in 1910, and it was in production for over 20 years. It featured the adventures of the seven titular Vivian sisters, a brave band of girls who rebelled against their cruel adult captors, the Glandelinians, in an arduous struggle to free their fellow child slaves. A faithful Catholic and devout churchgoer, Darger let the battle between good and evil hang in the balance throughout the saga, and even penned two endings, one in which the forces of good, embodied by the Vivian girls, triumph, and another in which the wicked Glandelinians defeat them.

While his creative, imaginary life spanned the vast Christian nation of Angelinia, the physical reality of Darger’s room was confined to a meager 17’6” x 13’9” x 9’8” space, and The Henry Darger Room Collection’s is even slightly smaller (10’6” x 11’3” x 8’). Despite it’s size, his art practice included the creation of mural sized, double-sided works extending out so many feet that viewing them in his original room was impossible! They were often bound together in handmade books that were so precious to him that he devoted his bed to storing them, sleeping instead in a chair by his desk.

The books contained in his personal library were equally treasured. Alongside bound scrapbooks he used to house serially collected source material, such as comic strips, he owned chiefly children’s books, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, several of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery treatise, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Along with his exhaustive knowledge of the Civil War, they were seemingly influential to his narrative In the Realms of the Unreal.


Darger’s actual art making materials were also largely children’s media, such as the affectionately amassed and re-consolidated mound of water color paints, relabeled things like “Storm Cloud Purple” and “Seven not heaven dark green colors.”

Because of Darger’s working process, which combined collage, carbon tracing and negative enlargement, The Henry Darger Room Collection also provides a rare glimpse into the source materials his imagery was appropriated from. High to low print media, including National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post, and Good House Keeping magazines and newspapers were employed alongside children’s coloring books and comic strips, which were immensely influential to his imagery. A cross section of the approximately 3,000 items from Darger’s personal archive of ephemera and source material are on display, and several pivotal items to Darger’s oeuvre are framed and mounted on the wall. They illustrate how his usage of existent imagery was just the matrix upon which his fertile imagination transformed innocent little girls into emboldened warriors or sacrificial martyrs, frequently stripped of their clothing and ornamented with penises, butterfly wings, clubbed tails or rams horns.

Henry Darger’s art practice and the artwork it produced have influenced generations of artists within Chicago and beyond. His influence was even the subject an exhibition held at
The American Folk Art Museum in New York City, curated by Brooke Davis Anderson and including such artists as Amy Cutler, Anthony Goicolea, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Robyn O'Neil, Grayson Perry— and to that we can add the genre of music, with the popular success of the band The Vivian Girls. Intuit’s Henry Darger Room Collection continues to elicit gasps, sighs and lively dialogue from visitors who come to absorb both the context of his home and the content of his studio alongside excellent examples of the fantastical artworks it contained.

For further information:

Please visit us at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art this Thursday, June 17 at 6pm for the
Henry Darger Lecture “More Little Ways: Henry Darger, Littleness and Fires ‘big or small’,” delivered by art historian Leisa Rundquist. This event is free and open to the public.

schedule an appointment to visit us at The Robert A. Roth Study Center, where you can explore Intuit’s extensive collection of books, periodicals, video media, photos, slides, and archival holdings relating to self taught, art brut, outsider, naïve, and non-traditional folk artworks, artists and art organizations. Microfilm copies of all volumes of In the Realms of the Unreal, The History of My Life, and The Vivian Girls in Chicago by Henry Darger are also available for viewing.

Anderson, Brooke Davis.
Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2008.

Biesenbach, Klaus, with Brooke Davis Anderson and Michael Bonesteel. Henry Darger. New York: Prestel Publishing in cooperation with the American Folk Art Museum, 2009.

In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger
. Directed by Jessica Yu. Port Washington, NY: Fox Lober, 2005.

All images by John Faier and courtesy of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

Thea Liberty Nichols is an arts administrator, independent curator, and writer who lives and works in Chicago. Along with managing Intuit’s Study Center, she also works at the
Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at The Art Institute of Chicago and 65GRAND.

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