Long live the mystic loners. Among them, Emily Dickinson and Henry Darger—two death-obsessed American homebodies, reclusive geniuses whose work was discovered posthumously. One wrote a “letter to the world”—1775 poems—from her bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts. The other summoned a universe from his room in Chicago. Both were conjurers. The former of an inexhaustibly complex world of inner emotions. The latter of a visionary realm torn apart by inexplicable forces.
Privately, without anyone knowing it—between jobs and visits to church—from 1913, when he was 19, until 1972, the year before he died, Darger wrote and illustrated the immense, all-encompassing, and all-but-unread 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. This 15,000-page tome, or hallucination, amounts to Darger’s “potboiler to the world”—a kind of Mahabharata, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Wizard of Oz all rolled into one. This melodramatic epic is a hybrid western, nursery rhyme, military handbook, and holy-war story.
While Darger’s drawings are simply breathtaking, his narrative, as captivating as it is, is hard to track. As with Rabelais, hyperbole is the rule; logic goes out the window; fantastic things occur continuously. Suffice to say, Darger’s 59-year fever dream unfolds on a planet 1000 times larger than Earth and populated by “hundreds of thrillions” of people. Nations include Angelinia, Abbieannia, Creetoria, and Glandelinia. The good guys, or gals, are the sweet Vivian Girls; the bad guys are Glandelinians, who are predatory adults. There are little lasses with penises (Blengins), who protect the Vivians, and assorted fabulous dragons. Destruction reigns; millions die; multitudes are taken into captivity, or are subsequently freed. It’s the Civil War by way of the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Everything comes out OK in the end, but, again, don’t look to Darger for coherence. Look to him to be dazzled.
Currently, 26 of Darger’s drawings are on view, many of them encased in a weird, cross-shaped display unit that has been wedged onto the second floor of the American Folk Art Museum’s new home on West 53rd Street. So ravishing are the drawings—most of which are two-sided, some as long as nine feet—that we can almost forgive the building’s mannered brutalist exterior, which looks like a crushed Kleenex box or the suburban temple I attended as a kid. The inside is better, but cramped. Nevertheless, this is an excellent occasion to fall under Darger’s spell, consider his strengths, and reflect on some of his weaknesses.
Employing an elaborate but rudimentary working method, Darger’s drawing is at once methodical and florid; his vision, stormy and euphoric. After tracing or collaging bits of photographs, coloring books, comics, advertising, or whatnot onto pasted-together sheets of paper, Darger filled everything in with colored pencils and watercolor. The flip-flops between realism and fantasy, drawing and collage, are enticing. His color is kaleidoscopic and vibrant; his gift for panoramic composition, impressive. Many works feature more than a hundred figures, all engaged in some sort of cataclysm. Most feature disturbing, taboo encounters between naked children and clothed adults (in fact, there’s a warning posted as to the suitability of the subject matter for minors). Fascinated by weather and flowers, Darger might depict thunderclouds rolling in and turning to rain, lightning striking, or giant daffodils and petunias blooming in the foreground.
He loved nonstop action. No sooner does one battle end than another begins. Darger’s is a world of constant climax and chaos. There’s always something happening. But because of the careful and formulaic way he draws, his art is oddly static. Individual pictures blur into one another; it’s sometimes hard to remember if you’ve seen a drawing before; and no matter how exquisite or disturbing the images are, Darger’s world often seems emotionally distant. Everything is gorgeous—or horrifying—but disassociated. It’s like watching a great samurai tale. Who wins or loses is irrelevant. His approach is ceremonial rather than personal. What matters is movement and color. Formations and regalia, pageantry and meteorology are more important to Darger than people.
Still, something deeply human pulls us to his art. Something beyond the beauty of his drawing or the completeness of his world. Although he invented and inventoried hundreds of flags, dutifully recorded numbers of dead and wounded, and devoted scores of pages to individual battles, what makes Darger’s empire so juicy is how he gets it to exist in the fissure between Disney, DeMille, and de Sade—between innocence, spectacle, and lust. Scenes of naked girls tied to trees, being carried off, bound hand and foot, or gagged are common. Torture is not unusual. Darger gives us multitudes of little misses, Camp Fire girls, and tomboys; armies of Ophelias, Cordelias, Little Nells, Annabel Lees, and Lolitas—many of them nude—all engaged in an orgiastic conflagration in his spectacular, make-believe domain. The sex may be repressed, but a luxurious eroticism prevails.
Darger and Dickinson. Two stay-at-homes who traveled the universe, but who are also exact artistic opposites. She is all precision and concision—someone who didn’t invoke a world but gave ours depth. She said, “I had a terror . . . and so I sing.” Darger is encyclopedic. He conjured a gigantic yet depthless world. If he’d had a maxim it might have been, “I sang so I would not feel the terror.”