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Henry Darger: 1892-1973

Muse dArt Moderne de la Ville de Paris

May 29th October 11th, 2015

Published at Hyperallergic as The Radical Ambiguity of Henry Darger

At Calmanrina murdering naked little girls (1910-1970) crayon, aquarelle and collage
on paper Eric Emo / Muse d'Art Moderne / Roger-Viollet 2015 Kiyoko Lerner /
ADAGP, Paris

I first encountered Henry Dargers 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 Ive loved it for one specific reason. Usually we struggle to
encounter something genuinely different and to think beyond our ourselves and own

experiences. But Dargers 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 ones anthropocentrism to
seriously consider his fundamentally unfamiliar world. Dargers 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 18921973 at the Muse dArt 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 pices de rsistance: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 Chicagos Northside from 1931 until his death in 1973.

Henry Dargers 4 hermaphrodite Vivian characters (detail) photo by Viviana Birolli for

Im particularly enticed by Dargers 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.
Dargers hermaphroditic art challenges these polarities and our tendency to view the
world in limited terms.

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 / Muse d'Art Moderne / Roger-Viollet 2015 Kiyoko Lerner / ADAGP, Paris
In 1972, Darger, a retired janitor, moved from his apartment of 40 years at 851 W.
Webster Avenue in Chicago to St. Augustines 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

Even though there will always be disagreement over gay nomenclature, David Ebony has
pointed out in his Art in America review of Jim Elledges book Henry Darger,
Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist that claims made about Dargers
gay life, such as Elledges, are speculative. This includes Elledges 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

Young Rebonna Dorthereans - Blengins - Catherine Isles, Female, One whip-lash-tail

(1910-1970) crayon and aquarelle on paper Eric Emo / Muse d'Art Moderne / RogerViollet 2015 Kiyoko Lerner / ADAGP, Paris

Henry Darger detail, 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 didnt 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 Dargers 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 Ovids 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, Salmaciss 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 Dargers 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.
Dargers 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

Dargers hermaphrodites support Meillassouxs 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. Dargers 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.

Joseph Nechvatal