Henry Darger, Annabelle Aronberg Vivian, circa 1940s, mixed media on paper, 35 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches, framed (Collection of Robert A. Roth, photo courtesy of Robert A. Roth and Intuit)

Often it’s a set of contradictory impressions — a celebration of childhood fulsomeness and a whiff of pedophiliac perversion — that newcomers to the art of Henry Darger walk away with after their first encounter with a certain, unforgettable part of his oeuvre. That is his group of drawings of naked, prepubescent girls whose bodies prominently include male genitals. But why do they? This question has long intrigued art historians and Darger aficionados alike.

Now, Betwixt and Between: Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls, an exhibition at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, in Chicago, unflinchingly addresses this most oddly distinctive facet of Darger’s art, backed up by some illuminating new research. This examination of sex- and gender-related themes in Darger’s work was organized by Leisa Rundquist, the head of the art and art history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. It will remain on view through September 4.

Betwixt and Between is Intuit’s latest presentation in its year-long program of exhibitions and events commemorating the 125th anniversary of the birth of Henry Darger (1892-1973), the legendary, self-taught Chicago recluse whose work long ago earned a central place in outsider art’s canon. To use a contemporary buzzword, this new exhibition examines the “gender-fluid” character of the Victorian-era little girls who are the protagonists of Darger’s epic tale of good versus evil, 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, which he is believed to have begun composing in the early 1930s. Thereafter, he worked on it for many decades. 

Henry Darger, Untitled, mid-20th century, watercolor, pencil, carbon tracing and collage on pierced paper, 24 x 106 1/2 inches (Collection of American Folk Art Museum, photo by James Prinz, ©American Folk Art Museum/Art Resource NY, ©2017 Kiyoko Lerner/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Darger filled more than 15,000 typewritten pages with that grand narrative, for which he created some 300 watercolor-and-collage illustrations. Some are several feet wide and double-sided; they have the visual impact of antique, painted scrolls, and their panoramic scenes have a cinematic quality, too. Several of these elaborate, double-sided pictures are on view in the current show, along with rarely seen examples of Darger’s study sketches of his young, female characters, and his individual portraits of the Vivian Girls.

The Vivian Girls are the seven, valiant sisters at the heart of the complex story that has become known, for short, as “In the Realms of the Unreal.” In it, the girls are princesses of Abbieannia, a Christian land; they take part in a revolt against the child slavery imposed on their world by sinister forces, including monsters. In various episodes of the story, children fight with weapons to defend themselves against their foes. Often they are strangled, tortured or killed. In the show, the large drawing “At Wickey Lasinia. Are Placed in a Death House” (circa 1940-1950, mixed media on paper) shows a group of naked, intersex girls apparently trapped in a storage room. Another, “At Battle Near McHollister Run” (mid-20th century, watercolor and pencil on paper), depicts the Vivian Girls, clothed and toting rifles, in a shootout across railway tracks with men in a trench.

Henry Darger, At Battle Near McHollister Run, mid 20th-century, watercolor and pencil on paper, 19 x 47 3/4 inches (Collection of Robert A. Roth, photo courtesy of Robert A. Roth and Intuit)

Researchers examining Darger’s work have pointed out that the artist was influenced by his exposure to Victorian children’s literature when he was a boy, as well as by the public image of childhood wholesomeness that was part of the popular culture of the late 1800s and the early 20th century. Darger, who was born in Chicago, spent his early boyhood with his father; his mother died when he was four years old.

In 1900, the boy’s poor, ailing father, who had taken care of him, moved into a mission home run by the Catholic Church, and Henry was sent to a Catholic boys’ home. After his father died, Henry was sent to orphanages, including a state-operated “asylum for feeble-minded children.” Years ago the Darger scholar John MacGregor’s research showed that the young Henry’s problem, for which he was institutionalized, was, in the euphemistic language of the time, that his heart “was not in the right place.” Translation: Little Henry was a routine masturbator in an age that equated “self-abuse” with insanity, “losing one’s manhood,” impurity, and homosexuality.

In his 2013 book Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist, author Jim Elledge notes that, when Darger lived with his father in Chicago’s poorest, seediest neighborhoods, he would have seen prostitutes of both sexes plying their trade in dirty alleyways, and that sexual abuse and dysfunction were hallmarks of his environment. Elledge proposes that Darger was homosexual and that story-telling and art-making provided outlets through which to transform and express a myriad of emotions and a complex personal psychology.

Two works by Henry Darger: left: Untitled (Study), mid-20th century, graphite on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches; right: Untitled, mid-20th century, altered illustrated fashion-magazine page, 9 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (Collection of American Folk Art Museum, gifts of Kiyoko Lerner; photos courtesy of American Folk Art Museum)

Darger eventually made his way to Chicago, where he became a janitor in a Catholic-run hospital. He remained a devout Christian, residing reclusively in a boarding house, where, after he died in 1973, his landlords discovered the piles of writing and rolls of colorful drawings he had produced in isolation over many years. (Today, the artist’s actual boarding-house room, which years ago was taken apart, can be seen in a permanent re-installation at Intuit. The museum’s website notes that its Darger-related holdings include “tracings, clippings from newspapers, magazines, comic books, cartoons, children’s books, coloring books, [and] personal documents” that were retrieved from his studio/home.)

Questions surrounding various aspects of Darger’s life and how they relate to his art abound. Many still have not been definitively answered. Was Darger a repressed homosexual? Had he been abused sexually as a child, and, if so, could such abuse have affected his understanding or perception of sex, sexuality, or gender roles (including his own) and, in turn, his depictions of his little-girl subjects? Just how much did he know about sex or male and female anatomy?

In a recent telephone interview, curator Rundquist told me that speculating about pathologies or psychoanalyzing the artist through his art are approaches that “tend to focus more on supposed perversion, sexual eroticism, or the abnormal. However, I prefer to slow down and try to unpack this complex art, offering what I hope might be an alternative way of understanding it.” Of course, Rundquist noted, “it’s natural for contemporary audiences to regard and interpret art like this through the political or other critical lenses of today, but here, we’re trying to shed light on the cultural and social contexts in which Darger lived and made his art.”

Henry Darger, At Wickey Lasinia. Are Placed in a Death House, circa 1940-50, mixed media on paper, 28 1/2 x 57 inches, framed (Collection of Robert A. Roth, photo courtesy of Robert A. Roth and Intuit)

The exhibition also features a 1932 newsletter, which Darger owned and apparently treasured, from the Society of the Little Flowers, a Catholic devotional group. Rundquist believes the devout Darger especially admired the attributes of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), a Barefooot Carmelite nun who was known for her girlish innocence as the “Little Flower of Jesus.” Her writings described her search for “a means of getting to by a little way.”

“A general sense of the diminutive as ideal was associated with young girls,” Rundquist explained. “But as in Shirley Temple’s movies, they could be powerful, too. They could even ‘save’ older men from going down the wrong path — or from themselves.”

In fact, as Rundquist observes in her catalogue essay and in the wall texts for Betwixt and Between, it is in the battle scenes of In the Realms of the Unreal that Darger regularly depicts the Vivian Girls and their cohorts with male genitals. Did he assume his diminutive heroines would need such natural, anatomical, male “equipment” or “armor” in such display-of-strength encounters?

Henry Darger, Untitled (Three Studies), mid-20th century, graphite on found paper, 7 x 5 1/2 inches, 8 x 11 inches, 10 1/2 x 6 inches (Collection of American Folk Art Museum, gifts of Kiyoko Lerner; photos by Gavin Ashworth, ©American Folk Art Museum/Art Resource NY, ©2017 Kiyoko Lerner/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

“We’ll never know exactly what Darger was thinking,” Rundquist noted, “but we can try to contextualize his work with regard to the society and culture of his time. Can we look at these pictures not merely as cartoonish drawings, but rather as images in which Darger had some kind of real emotional investment?” She added, “Can we not be afraid of them, embrace their ambiguities, and feel okay with them? Maybe, at some level, there is some eroticizing of his subjects, but at the same time, Darger’s work comes from the story-telling realm. It’s the stuff of fairy tales.”

That more innocent spirit of the fantastic and the idealized is what pulses through a colorful, undated, and untitled drawing on loan from the American Folk Art Museum in New York. It shows a multitude of clothed girls, some sporting identical dresses, playing and enjoying the splendors of a sunny, idyllic, flower-filled garden, reveling in each other’s company and savoring their girlhood. Another work on view, “At Wickey Sansinia” (mid-20th century, the verso of “At Battle Near McHollister Run”) shows a group of girls in matching gray frocks and blue hats frolicking on a patch of grass between two paths stretching into the distance, toward a blue sky filled with fluffy clouds, bright light — and possibility.

Henry Darger, At Wickey Sansinia, mid 20th-century, watercolor and pencil on paper, 19 x 47 3/4 inches (Collection of Robert A. Roth, photo courtesy of Robert A. Roth and Intuit)

Even if, as Rundquist observes, it is common for viewers to examine and interpret the art of any time or place through the varied critical filters of their own time, based on their own social-cultural orientations and personal experiences, Betwixt and Between’s curatorial nudge in the direction of letting Darger be Darger, inquisitively but not so judgmentally, appears to be a gesture that just might open up some new doors to understanding this seemingly unknowable artist’s enigmatic art — because of, not despite, its confoundingly ambiguous mix of emotions, psychological tension, storybook symbolism, and peculiar charms.

Betwixt and Between: Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls remains on view at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (756 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago; telephone: 312-243-9088) through September 4, 2017.

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise,...