Art

The Radical Ambiguity of Henry Darger

Henry Darger (1982-1973). " At McCalls Run Coller Junction Vivian girl saves strangling children from phenomenon of frightful shape". Crayon, encre, aquarelle et collage sur papier, 1910-1970. Paris, musée d'Art moderne.
Henry Darger, “At McCalls Run Coller Junction Vivian girl saves strangling children from phenomenon of frightful shape” (1910–1970), crayon, encre, aquarelle, and collage on paper (© Eric Emo / Musée d’Art Moderne / Roger-Viollet © 2015 Kiyoko Lerner / ADAGP, Paris)

PARIS — I first encountered Henry Darger’s doggedly private, colored drawings depicting his opulent fantasy world at the 1997 The Unreality Of Being show at the Museum of American Folk Art. Since then, his obsessive art has popped up in many shows around the world and each time I’ve loved it for one specific reason. Usually we struggle to encounter something genuinely different and to think beyond our ourselves and own experiences. But Darger’s drawings of girls endowed with male genitalia ask us to do just that. We are no longer trapped inside our own perspectives. With his work, the human norm is not the measure of all things — one must escape from one’s anthropocentrism to seriously consider his fundamentally unfamiliar world. Darger’s imaginary girl-boys take us to the realm of the unreal, to a place of contradiction and excess that encourages active, critical thought.

Henry Darger 1892–1973 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris celebrates the gift of 45 Darger works to the museum. The exhibition is not that large but it includes one of his pièces de résistance: the three-by-ten-foot hand-tinted, mixed-media panorama “Battle of Calverhine” (1929). John M. MacGregor, an art historian with psychiatric training (who retrospectively diagnosed Darger with Asperger syndrome), has said that this darkly congested work is the best of Darger on paper. It certainly is filled with noisy panache and is assumed to have been especially important to Darger, as it hung on the wall of his room in Chicago’s Northside from 1931 until his death in 1973.

Henry Darger (1892-1973). " Young Rebonna Dorthereans - Blengins - Catherine Isles, Female, One whip-lash-tail". Crayon et aquarelle sur papier, 1910-1970.
Henry Darger, “Young Rebonna Dorthereans – Blengins – Catherine Isles, Female, One whip-lash-tail” (1910–1970), crayon and aquarelle on paper (© Eric Emo / Musée d’Art Moderne / Roger-Viollet © 2015 Kiyoko Lerner / ADAGP, Paris)

I’m particularly enticed by Darger’s young “Vivian characters,” originally conceived of in his magnum opus, 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. A 15,145-page novel, The Realms (the preferred abbreviation) tells the story of an endless war triggered by the rebellion of children tyrannized by a people called the Glandelinians. The victims are backed in their struggle by the Angelinnians, seven of whom (the Vivian Girls) are the heroines of the novel. These girls also have complicated genders and typically been described as hermaphrodites.

The reasoning behind giving the Vivian girls penises is unclear. Darger had a straightforward technique where he traced and enlarged images from noncontroversial magazines and coloring books, yet he went so far as to give the Vivian characters transparent dresses in certain pieces, so as to explicitly reveal the veiled double sex. Clearly he found that aspect important, and it is. For the hermaphrodite gets at a truth that a thing can be both one thing and its opposite — that two opposites can exist simultaneously and not cancel each other out.

Hermaphroditic gender performance is politically important in that it resists drawing boundaries around the “other”; but the works go deeper than sheer pansexuality. The patriarchal construction of woman as other and the female body as object is deeply rooted in the supposed duality (opposites) of the (two) sexes. Most feminist theory questions this patriarchal construction of sex and gender, suggesting that sex is expressed through a continuum, rather than an opposing couplet based on heterosexist male/female polarities. Darger’s hermaphroditic art challenges these polarities and our tendency to view the world in limited terms.

Henry Darger (1892-1973). "At Calmanrina murdering naked little girls". Crayon, aquarelle et collage sur papier, 1910-1970.
Henry Darger, “At Calmanrina murdering naked little girls” (1910–1970), crayon, aquarelle and collage on paper (© Eric Emo / Musée d’Art Moderne / Roger-Viollet © 2015 Kiyoko Lerner / ADAGP, Paris) (click to enlarge)

In 1972, Darger, a retired janitor, moved from his apartment of 40 years at 851 W. Webster Avenue in Chicago to St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged to live out the final year of his life. His landlord, Nathan Lerner, found 30,000 pages of unpublished, handwritten manuscripts and more than 300 phantasmagoric watercolors and collages, up to 12 feet in length, of little trans-sexualized girls, many naked, some bearing ram horns, some with tiny penises, being butchered. Stunned that his neighbor had secretly created such an enormous body of work, he visited Darger and told him of the discovery. “Throw it all away,” Darger said.

Nowhere in The Realms does Darger refer to genitalia, carnal pleasure, or transgender issues. But Darger often refers to the heroic Vivian girls and their girl-boy cohorts as “fairies,” a familiar code word for homosexuals. Once, when a nun friend, whom he correspondended with after she left Chicago, wrote him: “I am glad that you are trying to be even a better boy since I left,” Darger crossed out “boy” and substituted the word with “girl.”

Even though there will always be disagreement over gay nomenclature, David Ebony has pointed out in his Art in America review of Jim Elledge’s book Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist that claims made about Darger’s gay life, such as Elledge’s, are speculative. This includes Elledge’s claim that the artist had a decades-long love affair with William Schloeder, an older man, thus placing Darger firmly within gay history and queer culture. Elledge also speculates that when Darger depicted the Vivian girls as hermaphrodites, “they represent the psychic hermaphrodites that he, and many around him associated with belles, fairies, pansies, queens, and queers.”

Viviana Birolli photo 3
Henry Darger, “Again running from forest flame” (1910–1970) (detail), crayon and aquarelle on paper (photo by Viviana Birolli)

That may be the case (or not), as Ebony makes plain. Darger scholar Michael Bonesteel maintains that there are a number of possibilities for the girls with penises; one may simply be that Darger didn’t know what female genitals looked like, and this was his best guess. But as Darger worked in various Chicago hospitals, I find that somewhat unlikely, especially after noticing that the naked girl wearing shoes on the far right in his haunting “At McCalls Run Coller Junction Vivian girl saves strangling children from phenomenon of frightful shape” piece is anatomically correct.

Regardless of Darger’s sexual orientation (or lack thereof), his works not only provoke us to consider hermaphroditic representation as related to male/female constructions of heterosexuality, but also homosexual constructions of identity. His critique of “representation” in the aesthetic sense is part of a critique of “representation” in the political sense (and vice versa).

The hermaphrodite first made an appearance in Western culture with Ovid’s classic text Metamorphoses. Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, was a typical, if exceptionally handsome, young male with whom the water nymph Salmacis fell madly in love. When Hermaphroditus rejected her sexual advances, Salmacis voyeuristically observed him from afar while desiring him fiercely. Finally, one spring day Hermaphroditus stripped nude and dove into the pool of water, Salmacis’s habitat. Salmacis immediately dove in after him — embracing him and wrapping her body around his, just as, Ovid says, ivy does around a tree. She then prayed to the gods that she would never be separated from him — a prayer that they answered favorably. Consequently, Hermaphroditus emerged from the pool both man and woman. As in the tale of Hermaphroditus, a new pansexual, erotic order seems to arise in Darger’s work that conforms to Speculative Realism, which insists that the world exists independently from our own conceptualization of it. Far from making dogmatic claims, this sort of philosophical speculation explores the space of the ungraspable.

Henry Darger (1892-1973). "Statues strangling children". Crayon, décalque et aquarelle sur papier, 1910-1970. Dimensions : 61 x 273 cm
Henry Darger, “Statues strangling children,” crayon, décalque et aquarelle sur papier, 61 x 273 cm (© Eric Emo / Musée d’Art Moderne / Roger-Viollet © 2015 Kiyoko Lerner / ADAGP, Paris) (click to enlarge)

Darger’s hermaphrodites invite comparison to the central proposal of an important Speculative Realist book, After Finitude: An Essay On The Necessity Of Contingency by Quentin Meillassoux. In it Meillassoux renews the need for ontological speculation by attacking what he calls the “correlationist” assumptions of phenomenology and stresses the concrete existence of the universe prior to human existence. It is absolutely necessary, he says, that the world has the capacity to be other than it currently is.

Meillassoux says that unknowability is itself a positive characteristic. I found that Darger’s hermaphrodites support Meillassoux’s thesis, as they remind us to reject the thesis that the order of the world depends upon the way that our bodies and minds (and our language/culture) work to structure it. These girl-boys remind us to reject the phenomenological idea of the knower and known. Darger’s speculations are necessary to our understanding of our place in the world, and they are certainly useful when addressing transgender issues rooted in a continuing struggle for inclusion.

Henry Darger: 1892–1973 continues at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1 Avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris) through October 11. 

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