This lecture was part of the Divine Disorder Conference on the Conservation of Outsider Folk art that was organized and hosted by NCPTT. The conference was held February 15-16, 2012 on the campus of Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Realms of the Unreal and the Henry Darger Archives
The American Folk Art Museum maintains the single largest public repository of works by Henry Darger (1892-1973) one of the most significant self-taught artists of the twentieth century. This talk looks at the Henry Darger collection as a window to better understand and interpret this singular artist’s life and art.
Divine Disorder Segment #5, Lee Kogan
Church: I will now turn the presentation over to Lee Kogan. Lee Kogan is curator emerita at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. She was previously the Director of the Folk Art Institute at the Museum and for more than a decade was adjunct assistant professor of art and art professions at New York University. She organizes, writes, lectures, exhibitions widely and has contributed essays on southern and other American Folk Art catalogues, magazines, and books. I know for myself, I’ve read Ms. Kogan’s essays for many, many years. So I’m very, very excited to present her today.
Kogan: I’d like to thank you Jason, thank the NCPTT and Tony Rajer who was a close friend of mine. I get choked up thinking about Tony because it would have been a way to see him again today but organizing this conference and inviting me to participate. I really congratulate the Clementine Hunter team and that project that’s been going on for years. You have performed a noble deed indeed and artists like Clementine Hunter are given the respect that they deserve.
Henry Darger and His Alternate World, Realms of the Unreal and the Henry Darger Archives at the American Folk Art Museum.
The art of contemporary self-taught artists is very often a preservationists, conservator or restorers nightmare. Self-taught artists most often do not have the interest or for that matter, often the funds, to purchase stable, long-lasting acceptable art materials. They create thoughtfully but spontaneously, combining materials at hand, frequently used and recycled, most often collected from local sources.
Eugene Von Bruenchenheim erected towers from chicken bones. Teresa Brisby gathered materials at the town dump. Simon Rodia used broken crockery, cement, steel rods, and wire for his magical towers. For an artist whose primary medium is work on paper, the use of fugitive materials is hazardous. Brittleness, fading, darkening, flaking, loose adhesive, tears, holes, sometimes pests as in the work of Martin Ramirez are typical problems that result over time. Working individually, sometimes in private, without artistic recognition, representation without exhibitions and galleries or collector interest, the art can over time wind up in the trash along with the maker’s other personal effects. This might have been the case with Henry Darger, currently respected and recognized as one of the most significant artists, self-taught artists of the twentieth century and I would say artists of the twentieth century. His art crosses boundaries of folk and contemporary art as he is hailed by the American Folk Art Museum and is an artist certainly in the museum’s permanent collection. But his art is also in the collections of other major American museums, the American Art Museum Smithsonian Institution, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art among them.
This talk explores the private and mysterious world of the powerful ingenious and remarkable American self-taught master. When he died in 1973, his prodigious, undiscovered artistic oeuvre of writings, paintings on paper, and mountains of source material in books intermixed in a cluttered one and a half room living space with a plethora items culled from daily foraging in neighborhood garbage cans. All of this could easily have been trashed. The contents of Darger’s room and Darger in the year 2012 may have been an interesting subject for the current popular reality TV show, The Hoarders, the Artists Edition. But serendipity played an important role in saving the art and essential source material of this genius’s inspired work.
The landlord was Nathan Lerner, a [ ? ] trained industrial designer, an artist himself, who after emptying two loads of detritus into a hired dump truck, came upon a stash of paintings. He was overwhelmed with the contents. Lerner sensed the artistic importance of this previously undiscovered talent. While Lerner, over the years, did no paper preservation on the fragile works, the writings, the source material, he and his wife Kiyoko kept all intact along with the room furniture and brick-a-brac.
Darger’s art, like almost all self-taught artists was created with inexpensive, easily available materials. He used affordable drawing paper sheets, carbon paper and water color paints commonly available at the local five and ten cent store. Recycled cardboard was of use and collage materials were utilized from newsprint, magazines, and other popular sources. He favored decorative stamps as picture borders and used the local drugstore for photo duplication and enlargement. While his materials were somewhat unstable and fugitive, they did survive. Some of the tracings that Darger used over and over again bear signs of wear and there is evidence, as I mentioned, and as you saw rips and tears and fading and darkening in other works.
American Folk Art Museum became seriously interested in the art of Henry Darger during and following a 1997 exhibition at our museum, Henry Darger, The Unreality of Being, organized by Steven Prokopoff, University of Iowa Museum of Art. By 2000, through the efforts of the Contemporary Center with Brooke Anderson, who I’m thrilled to say is here today, yay, and a dedicated team of funders, the museum and a combination of gift and purchase acquired a sizable of paintings, books, archival material created by Henry Darger. The source material includes coloring books, comic books, newspaper clippings, photographic prints and negatives, and Darger’s traced transfer patterns derived from photographic enlargements and paper based collage imagery. In the artist’s personal records is some correspondence, religious materials consisting of prayer cards, pictures featuring religious imagery, some financial records and assorted ephemera. Darger’s important personal library including several Frank Baum Oz books, Heidi, Penrod, and illustrated civil war publications, a few bibles, hymn, prayer, and catechism books are among his library books as well.
Darger’s monumental text material included a fifteen thousand page novel entitled, The Story of the Vivian Girls and what is known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco-Angelinian war storm caused by the child slave rebellion, called The Realms of the Unreal to us or shortened, The Realms, as well as, an eight volume autobiography that was five thousand eighty four pages, of which two hundred six were about his life and the balance about a tremendous tornado, Sweetie Pie, that destroyed a town. He created around three hundred painted works on paper to illustrate The Realms, some grouped as diptix, some triptix, some totaling almost ten feet in length. He left several weather journals, fire journals and interestingly what seemed to be another novel, several thousand pages completed which scholar John MacGregor refers to as Adventures in Chicago/Crazy House, a sequel to The Realms.
In 2001, Darger’s personal archive from his residence was gifted by Kiyoko and Nathan Lerner. A Getty grant enabled the American Folk Art Museum to organize and preserve the Henry Darger Collection that is currently housed in thirty eight foot climate controlled storage facility along with our fine object and painting collection. Every piece of document, artwork, and object was lightly brushed since Darger’s Webster Avenue room was subject to tremendous accumulation of soot from the furnace. All the material was catalogued and placed individually in folders and housed in special made boxes. I would say that again, congratulations to Brooke Anderson for supervising and overseeing along with the registrar and then a professional group oversaw that.
Every piece of paper and every painting was housed in Mylar for ease in handling and looking at, so one could handle those works, most of which are double sided. Paper was de-acidified for all the paintings and important ancillary material, like the tracings. Small holes and tears were repaired by a paper conservator for every work that we exhibit or have been exhibited. Unfortunately, and this is terrible, Nathan Lerner cut with a knife all the drawings from Darger’s handmade sewn spine binding. This was most unfortunate. All of Darger’s manuscripts were transferred to microfilm and the archival material was professionally organized and stored at the museum’s climate and humidity controlled facility as are the glorious water colors.
The American Folk Art Museum is the single largest repository of Henry Darger’s graphic art, literary output, and archival material in the world. Several exhibitions, a symposium, lecture series were spawned from these fascinating art works and accompanying archives. Darger drawings, his staggering texts were hand written and then typed single spaced. Art and archival material housed in one major place offers a rare window into looking at art and better understanding this singular artist oeuvre. He experienced pain, suffering, isolation, loss during his eight-one years and it is important to study the details of Darger’s biography and what he shares with viewers but it does not and I emphasize not make the art better or worse. However, it does help in comprehension and sets an important context for study and may amplify our appreciation. Darger turned the circumstances of his life in a remarkable way with his inspired productivity. The collection and ancillary material makes clearer his artistic process.
I visited 849 Webster Avenue, north side of Chicago near Fremont Street in 1996. This is how it looked then and here is a view from Darger’s room from the window. At the time, the neighborhood had a century old look, but while shabby, was vital and well kept. The house is two blocks from the elevated subway line with a cluster of stores and restaurants serving the surrounding middle class population. The Catholic Church, St. Vincent de Paul which Darger, while working, attended daily and upon retirement attended as many as five masses a day, is just two blocks from his room. Past the front stoop and the main floor up another flight of stairs to the back is the room that Darger scholars say, time stopped. Inexpensive ornaments, many religious ones were noticed on the fireplace mantel and there were several steamer trunks, an old hamper filled with balls of string, old eyeglasses, immense stacks and decades old coloring books were around. Previously, there was saved Pepto Bismal bottles as well. The room was not at all tiny or cramped but it was filled with stuff.
Henry Darger was born at home 350 24th Street in Chicago to Rosa Fulton Darger from Wisconsin. Significant in his life from his writings, Darger’s mother died of septicemia when he was four after she gave birth to a girl. The artist had no memory of his mother or his sister, who was given up for adoption within a month after her birth. Though his father was handicapped, according to Darger’s account, he was happy with his father until age seven when his father was no longer able to take care of him. He was sent to Mission of Our Lady of Mercy Home and attended the Skinner School. His behavior became a concern. He made funny noises in class and was taunted by classmates. A series of medical consultations resulted in his transference to the Illinois Asylum for the Feeble Minded in Lincoln, Illinois. The place was crowded and existed well into the twentieth century. The major diagnosis causing Darger’s transference to Lincoln we are told was masturbation. Imagine an intelligent child, a sensitive one, spending years in a Dickensian institution. The institution failed to provide Darger with mental stimulation and social skills and support that he desperately needed or any opportunities for growth. There are suggestions that he may even have been abused there.
During his Lincoln stay, his father died. He made several attempts to escape or to leave and finally did at age 17. He moved to Chicago, lived in a single occupancy room and supported himself with a series of low paying jobs, mainly janitorial. Eventually, as a consistent and dependable worker, he was employed by St. Joseph Hospital where he was a dishwasher and a cleaner. He served in the army and received and honorable discharge due to poor health. He retired from work at age 71, too ill to stand. He lived on Social Security, attended church service and spent time with art and writing. When he could no longer take care of himself, the Lerner’s arranged for him to go to a nursing home, The Little Sisters of the Poor, how ironic. They did visit him but then stopped after a few visits when he no longer seemed to recognize them.
His prodigious novel, The Realms of the Unreal, is an epic tale of war, a story of danger, destruction, cruelty, torture, mutilation, horror, even the light is responding to these horrors, rescue and escape. The battle of good versus evil is over the issue of child slavery. An overall religious orientation is ever present and the Christian side eventually triumphs. The adult male adversaries, the Glandalinians in the early works were often dressed in gray and wore mortar board hats. Heroines are the Vivian girls who always survived travails through their purity, wisdom, goodness, and cunning, even though here they look as though they’re in trouble. The Vivian girls are perfect samples of Catholic morality but they are also perfect shots and excellent military strategists.
Darger so identified with the Vivian sisters that they seemed to become part of his imagined surrogate family. Their pictures and those of other little girls hung on the walls of his room. Judging from archival photographs that we have that were taken in the 1970’s after he died. The Vivian sisters are helped by imaginary creatures, the Blengiglomenean Serpents, called the Blengins. There are many different types. Often they are seen in the form of winged dragons and are serpent like creatures with eighty to one hundred foot wing spans. Blengins sometimes appear in human form and merge with humans at the end of the story. They are dangerous to everyone except the little girls whom they fiercely protect and to whom they are “tender as a mother towards a child.” Among their varied forms are the human- headed Blengins, we see that here; the spangled Blengins. There is also a young Tuscalorian Blengin and the human- headed Dorotheans. There’s the cat- headed Blengiglomenean and a gigantic Roverine with young and all the Roverines are poisonous. Darger generals were mainly appropriations from newspaper and other printed sources. Here are the wicked Glandalinians, four of them; General Bichnelian, Thomas Federal, he took a lot of time giving names to all of his characters, General Tamerline and General Meldonian Shuman. Next in the upper left we have another Glandalinian and in the bottom high Abbieannian defenders of virtue and morality. Humor is noted in giving names. There was a General “Accountant” and there was also a General “Convention.” So he loved to pun. Generals were pompously dressed in Austro-Hungarian or Prussian World War I uniforms. Here though is the angel faced Angelinian, Colonel Jack Francis Evans. There were also colorful flags and maps, important parts of the story, lending color and spectacle to the epic.
Unschooled in drawing and painting, Darger discovered his own solutions to realize his artistic vision. As you saw before, collage appealed to him as he cut pictures from a multitude of sources combining them skillfully and with his own beautiful painted backgrounds. Believing he was unable to draw freehand, he also used tracings from coloring books, children’s fashion ads, and cartoons. He stored the ads in the library when he clipped from newspapers and magazines. Notice, here’s a Coppertone ad which was among his saved illustrations and look at it and think of his life and really creates a disturbing unease. Here’s another example that he saved. It’s a potentially threatening situation from a newspaper. Often he altered works with pencil and over painted with color, giving them a fresh context. Sometimes the artist used texts to create his own label copy on the bottom of a photograph, giving his characters a new identity and adding his own personal narrative. Simple alterations might have consisted of penciling in the eyes, changing the character of the photograph and using newspaper periodicals and other illustrations, many pictures were too small for his expanded vision, so he began this long and for him expensive process of tracing the figures and then going to the drugstore, the drugstore processing service to make negatives and enlarge his tracings. There are over 246 enlargements in carefully labeled brown envelopes that he filed. Multitudes of the same figure were created, sometimes with slight alteration of a hand or a foot or a reversal of the figure from one side to another, giving it a new look.
Some characters were much favored and recurred again and again. One of his favorite figures, he was inspired by the Little Orphan Annie comic of Harold Gray in 1929, he saved old newspapers and Annie Rooney, which this is, was created later by Brandon Walsh and Darrel McClure. The comic strip, the coloring book, children’s fashion ads were excellent sources with their simple forms, outline shapes in harmony with the flattened perspective that he favored. Images were altered when Darger removed children’s clothes. In this instance, he added a bathing suit for the child. Was it so not to arouse attention of the clerk or technician at the drugstore, or the person who was enlarging his photographs? Clothed and unclothed figures were simultaneously intermixed in Darger’s artworks. All the more unusual because many of the little girls have male genitalia. It’s not clear whether Darger was confused about sexuality or had another purpose. Scholar John MacGregor addresses the issue with some detail psychoanalytically in his significant book, Henry Darger; Realms of the Unreal.
Other recurring figures are running figures and jumping figures as these are, which really add a galvanic energy to the narrative. One of his favorite recurring figures is the vulnerable little girl with a pail. Sometimes pictured amidst impending cruelties, other times noticed in more serene social settings. Unclothed multiple figures of child slaves, but the seven blond-haired sisters frequently clothed in the same outfit might be seen here. There are eight of them so it might have been a relative with them near to the left of center in the polka dot dresses.
The larger works, as I mentioned, are horizontal and painted double sided. The diptix and triptix were created from individual smaller drawings that were selected, then glued together by the artist to create the larger format. The sequence of order of the drawings and if there is a narrative sequence correlating them to the text, it has not thoroughly been investigated yet. Some of the correspondences have been found but many have not. Darger was gifted in assembling elements in space to tell a story and or that were visually arresting. He had remarkable compositional and color sense. Few artists used purple, yellow, and pink more sensitively, especially in some of the gorgeous color washes. He created lush harmonies with his color palette. Mundane elements were gathered and magically transformed. Heavily peopled singing is sometimes as many as 100 hundred figures are both serene and action filled. Occasionally simultaneously combining these two disparate moods that I like to think of, actually it was Elka Spoerri talking about Wolfli when she compared his works and said it was catastrophe and idle. I like to, one can see that in describing these large narratives as well.
Humor is also noted in an example as follows; “After being locked in a rat infested cell, the Vivian sisters decided to harness all the rats and let them out on the Glandelinian quarters. They so frightened the soldiers that the soldiers jumped up on the tables when they saw the rats scampering on the floor.” The text balloon ends with a sarcastic comment, “some soldiers “belittling them for their lack of courage.
In the story of his life, Darger wrote, “unlike most children, I hated the idea of growing up and I’ve become an old man darn it.” And the last entries in his journal or diary, February 1971, they are really touching. After an apparent eye operation, “A serious infection. In bed at home. I couldn’t dare go out because of an eye covering for protection placed by the doctor. I had a poor nothing-like Christmas, never had a good Christmas in my life, nor a good year, and now ruining it, I’m very bitter but fortunate not to be revengeful though I feel I should be.” And finally, the last entry, “I’m walking the streets and again going to mass as usual. What will January 1971 be for New Year? What will it be.” Illness, incapacity and death in his real life answered his query but subsequently immortality and respect came to this unprepossessing artist through his extraordinary artwork.
Church: Do we have any questions for Miss Kogan?
Kogan: I would like to just make a comment. People do call and want to examine the archives or study or do some work. Right now our museum has gone through some complexities of its own. We are up and running. We have a wonderful exhibition, beautifully reviewed and well visited but at the current time your requests, the archives are not that easily available to the public. We pray and hope that they will be soon. So if you want to contact us, do but don’t plan on doing a paper that’s due in six months.
Church: Are there any more questions?
Questions not intelligible.
Lee Kogan is curator emerita at the American Folk Art Museum. She was previously director of the Museum’s Folk Art Institute and adjunct assistant professor of art and art professions at New York University. She was senior research consultant for the American Folk Art Museum’s Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists (1990); project coordinator for the exhibition and book, Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger (1993); co-author of Treasures of American Folk Art from the American Folk Art Museum (1994); project coordinator and essay contributor for the exhibition and book, Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth Century: An American Anthology (1998); curator and author of Nellie Mae Rowe: Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do (1999); and associate editor of the Encyclopedia of American Folk Art (2004). Over the years at the museum, Kogan organized numerous exhibitions, 15 Quilt Weekends, 18 symposia fostering the creativity of contemporary self-taught artists, six seminars on traditional folk art, and more than 100 academic and craft heritage courses. She lectures widely and has written essays on southern and other American folk art for catalogs, magazines and books. She holds an M.A. from Columbia University and an M.A. from New York University.