Sunday, December 29, 2013

Henry Darger ... throwaway boy (a bio)

Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story. Henry Darger.
It was not an easy read but as I am fascinated with the artwork of Henry Darger I just gulped Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist, a bio by Jim Elledge.

Not sure if "tragic" begins to cover it. A slum life in an old Chicago as bad as or worse than old Five Points New York. Poverty, filth, a mother who died when Henry was four, his father a drinker, Henry abandoned to the streets and various charity institutions, including the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children -- which reminded me of the second season of American Horror Story's asylum. He was preyed on and violently throughout childhood and teens.

Words like "gay" and "queer" seem free and open, defiant at least, compared to what Darger experienced or how he experienced his sexuality, as much as closeted homosexual does, although they are all the case.

I kept fighting with the author's depictions, wishing astonishing biographer Deidre Bair was writing this so I could find more light in Darger's life, but given Elledge's extensive historical research into Chicago in the late 1800s, early 1900s, the predatory nature of the streets, and Elledge's researched conversance with secret lives and gay culture, I can't blame him for the realities of Darger's life, and his (Elledge's) imaginal descriptions--reading into Henry's thoughts and actions; not always differentiating speculation from fact. It's a style, one I'm not used to. I could be wrong in my reaction.

Henry Darger's life had few comforts. But he had a friend/lover for years, although I wasn't entirely sure how accurate Elledge was but anyway--thank god! And when he was working as a janitor--his lifelong career--he wrote thousand-paged novels and painted, constructed his spectacular and fantastical art (outsider art --- "...produced by people who for various reasons have not been culturally indoctrinated or socially conditioned" -- a blessing, I suggest).

Not an easy read because of subject matter, but Henry Darger's courage, and his way of working on and out childhood impressed me. Maybe moved me forward.

POSTSCRIPT. Darger's work was discovered posthumously by his landlord Nathan Lerner (an artist) -- who knew him and thus understood he wasn't the predator so many art critics accused him of being--without having met him or known anything but the paintings. Oh the dangers of psychological criticism!  Of trying to figure out the artist rather than the art!  Lerner had Darger's gravestone inscribed: 
Henry Darger, Artist, Protector of Children.  And that's what the work is about.

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