Who was Henry Darger


One day in the early 20th century, Henry Darger was on his way home when he met his best and only friend Whilliam Schloeder. Darger said he had just received a letter from Abbieannia but had not had time to read it. “Abbieannia!” Exclaimed Schloeder enthusiastically, “my goodness. That must be something important! "

Indeed it was, because when Darger opened the letter he read that a certain Colonel Jack Ambrose Evans had heard about Dargers Gemini Society for the Protection of Children. Evans urged him to help rescue the Vivian Girls, seven young warrior princesses from Abbieannia who were leading a children's crusade to abolish child slavery in the lands of the imaginary world created by Darger, "Realms of the Unreal".

A simple caretaker of a hospital and devout Catholic made himself a fictional hero figure in the “realm of the unreal” and founded his own monumental saga set in another world, in which the forces of good and evil about the innocent souls of children fought.

Trip to Abbieannia

Darger and Schloeder really existed, and they may well have shared the mission of their two-member Gemini Society - but Darger increased their numbers in his unpublished 15,000-page epic novel In the Realms of the Unreal several dozen and went with them on a long journey that magically led to one of the lands in the realm of the unreal - the alien kingdom of Abbieannia.

Their journey first takes them to New York, and from there they take a steamer to the Caribbean islands. They get caught in a hurricane that damages the ship so badly that they have to leave it in the lifeboats. When the supplies run out, they desperately eat two of the sailors who died in the shipwreck. Eventually Darger and his companions are rescued and continue their journey to the Pacific.

Somewhere behind Hawaii, the team manages the miraculous crossing to the fictional Angeline Seas in the realm of the unreal and from there to Abbieannia. Nowhere is it explained exactly how this is done, and if one looks at a text passage from earlier, according to which our earth is a moon of this "imaginary planet" and this is "a thousand times the size of our world", the crossing seems to have sprung from Darger's imagination to be.

Darger's paintings, which have amazed and puzzled people around the world, are essentially coherent illustrations of the story that was, by and large, completed by the time Darger was creating his last large-format works.

During the time when Darger was writing at the realms - from around 1912 until probably the 1930s - he switched to freehand drawings, editing photos from magazines and newspapers, making collages from photo reproductions, pausing pictures and finally to combine and refine all these techniques in the form of a traced, collaged watercolor.

Glandelinians torture girls

Probably towards the end of this decade, Darger began working in larger formats. He overlapped smaller pieces of paper or glued them together to create a larger work surface. The small pieces are often the unpainted backs of leaves from the early 1930s and beyond.

A long panorama picture and also diptychs, triptychs or four-part works were created from these recycled individual works. In the latter case, the scenes seem to have been put together at random and chosen more according to their size than their subject.

The girls are often depicted without clothes to indicate that they have been captured by the Glandelinians or have just escaped: The Glandelinians enjoy undressing the child slaves to make their lives even more unbearable. The predominantly monochrome gray-beige or blue clothing indicates that some girls are out and about as spies and have disguised themselves as Glandelinians.

Enigmatic sexual motives

The biggest mystery of Darger's pictures is the fact that he provided many of his naked female figures with penises. Much has been speculated about the reasons why he put male genitalia on female children - theories ranging from psychoanalytic interpretations of an imaginary female phallus to gender confusion that may have been the result of emotional or sexual abuse, the Darger than Child was exposed in the home; even the possibility that he might never see a naked female body was considered.

It would be an understatement to say that Darger was exceedingly productive: the two hundred to three hundred works for which he is primarily known is only the tip of an iceberg (primarily literary). In addition to his magnum opus “In the Realms of the Unreal” and the 8,500-page sequel “Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House”, he wrote the 5,000-page autobiography “The History of My Life”, created six volumes of weather tables, and managed Diary and filled various notebooks with notes, statistics, sketches, additional material and early drafts for the "realms".
Breaking out of the real world

When all of this work was discovered shortly before his death, it came as a real shock to the few people who knew him. That this withdrawn and unsocial old man - the product of a tragic youth and a lonely adult existence - spent most of his life creating his own virtual world is deeply sad and at the same time incredibly unbelievable and ultimately full of miracles.

For only a wonderful and all-encompassing realm of the unreal could lure Darger out of the realm of a real world that was full of failures.

The art historian Michael Bonesteel teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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