Thank Heaven for Little Girls

The lubricious fantasies of Henry Darger.

“Henry Darger: The Unreality of Being”

The Museum of American Folk Art

Through April 24, 1997

Is it tasteless to suggest of JonBenet Ramsey–the cute, blond 6-year-old from Colorado who was strangled to death a few weeks ago–that it is her grisly death, rather than her career as a juvenile beauty queen, that makes her so uncannily resemble a girl in a fairy tale? For while a pageant princess is merely tacky, a murdered pageant princess takes her place in the illustrious line of pretty young girls in what, pace multiculturalists, we might call our collective lore, to meet, or at least be threatened with, a gruesome end. Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, Gretel, Alice–there is an intimate connection in our culture, it would seem, between being a sweet young miss and getting garroted.

By curious coincidence, this fairy-tale conjunction of appealing nymphets and gory murder is currently the subject of an unusual show at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York: an exhibition of eccentrically magnificent watercolors by the late painter and writer Henry Darger. If Darger were alive today, he would be fascinated by the story of JonBenet. Darger collected clippings on the subject of little girls, murdered and otherwise, and went on to write and illustrate a truly amazing, Scheherazadean 15,145-page epic about seven cute prepubescent sisters being tortured by brutish men who like to capture little girls in order to enslave them and torture them and take their clothes off. In the course of Darger’s story–titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion–the sisters (the Vivian Girls) manage to escape from the men (the Glandelinians) time and time again, but countless less fortunate girl-slaves are spectacularly mutilated and slaughtered along the way.

Darger is what is known as an “outsider” artist–which is to say that he didn’t receive any formal art training; was not, during his lifetime, part of the art world; and was exposed very little, if at all, to traditional art in general. As such, he is presumed to have produced his work out of some unusually pure sort of inner compulsion, rather than in response to other art. Darger spent nearly all his life living alone in a rented room in Chicago, earning his living as a janitor in a hospital during the day, going to Mass frequently, and coming home at night to work on his paintings and his writing. He was born in 1892, sent to a Catholic boys home at 8, and then placed in an institution for the feebleminded, from which he escaped at the age of 16. Shortly before his death in 1973, after Darger moved out to a nursing home, his landlord opened up his room and discovered, amid piles of presumably artistic debris (hundreds of pairs of smashed eyeglasses, balls of string, old pairs of shoes, scores of empty Pepto-Bismol bottles), one 2,600-page autobiography, an 11-year weather log, 87 watercolors, 67 pencil drawings, and the tale of the Vivian Girls.

The Darger watercolors on exhibit include both peacetime tableaux of tiny lassies, some naked, some in dresses, disporting themselves among butterflies and enormous flowers and odd little birds–and scenes of maniacal carnage, in which the same tiny lassies are strangled naked (distorted faces, tongues stuck out) and disemboweled by merciless Glandelinians. (Presumably in anticipation of a fainter-hearted audience, the gorier pictures were excluded from last year’s Darger exhibition at the University of Iowa, of which this show is an expanded version.) Some paintings combine the two types of scenes, with comic nonchalance. In one, a group of placid girls jump rope while immediately behind them lie the severed heads of three men, horrified expressions on their faces, and pairs of disembodied hands (their own? their murderers?) still clenched around their necks. In all paintings, the colors are extraordinary and fantastical–a cross between Yellow Submarine and a pastel version of Matisse.

Darger produced a lot of his little-girl pictures by tracing comic strips or magazine illustrations (on occasion he cut pictures out and stuck them on the paintings directly). In some works he transposed the illustrations more or less intact; in others he stripped off the girls’ clothes and added penises (all his naked girls have penises). Several images appear over and over again in Darger’s work, often within the same painting–a girl mixing something in a bowl, a girl sitting on a fence, a girl running fearfully away from something, her school bag flying out behind her. Often these repeated images are rendered identically (same colors, no alterations in the pose), and sometimes they even appear next to each other in series of as many as eight. But the effect is not at all proto-Warhol. It’s subtler, less programmatic. It’s reminiscent, if anything, of those groups of angels or monks or soldiers in medieval manuscripts in which some of the figures are identical to each other, and others only slightly different–but the repetition seems to be employed for the purpose of visual economy, in order not to divert attention from the picture’s central theme, rather than to draw attention to repetition or image-making itself.

Of the enormous quantity of material Darger produced, his watercolors have received the lion’s share of attention. The Museum of American Folk Art did sponsor a reading of passages from the written version of Vivian Girls. Still, it’s a pity there’s none of Darger’s writing in the exhibition itself, because it’s marvelous, strange stuff, quite as startling as the paintings–in dizzying magnitude as well as vividness, since in the written version, Darger’s gory battle scenes extend for hundreds of pages. Take this excerpt, for instance (don’t read this if you’re squeamish):

Indeed the screams and pleads of the victims could not be described, and thousands of mothers went insane over the scene, or even committed suicide. … About nearly 56,789 children were literally cut up like a butcher does a calf, after being strangled or slain, in all ways, indeed the sights of the bloody windrows [sic], with their intestines exposed or gushed out, was a sight that no one could bear to witness without losing their reason. Hearts of children were hung up by strings to the walls of houses, so many of the bleeding bodies had been cut up that they looked as if they had gone through a machine of knives.

The writing also complicates the naked-girl scenes in the pictures, since it combines vintage Darger bloodthirstiness with the gentlest, softest grandpa porn. For instance, “The little girls were even glad to leave the building, which they hastily did after looking for their clothes which they could not find, having to leave in their nighties.”

The outsider-art movement responsible for raising Darger from obscurity to fame is a rapidly expanding niche of the art world that has come into its own in this country in the past decade or so: The fifth annual Outsider Art Fair took place a couple of weeks ago in New York; there is a new federally funded museum devoted to outsider art in Baltimore. These days, pieces by the most popular outsider artists, of which Darger is one, are priced in the mid to high five-figures.

But while the notion of outsider art has proved an effective marketing concept, it is often an unfortunate interpretive one–outsider artists tend to attract a particularly crude and irritating kind of psycho-biographical analysis. Chief culprit in Darger’s case is one John MacGregor, an art historian to whom Darger’s former landlord, now his executor, has bequeathed semi-exclusive access to some of the Darger material, and who is thus the main disseminator of Darger criticism. Despite the fact that virtually nothing is known about Darger’s inner life, MacGregor (typically, for a critic of outsider art) writes confidently about how compulsive Darger was; how he couldn’t control his urge to produce all that crazy stuff; how he couldn’t distinguish between fantasy and reality; how he was a potential serial killer; how he got sexually excited writing descriptions of burning forests. MacGregor careers from the vulgar Freudian to the idiosyncratically bizarre–for instance, “The trauma of [Darger’s mother’s] death was represented in his later life by an obsessional preoccupation with weather.” “Clearly,” MacGregor wrote in a 1992 exhibition catalog, “Darger was not free.”

I t’s true that Darger’s more gruesome pictures can be a little disturbing. But think of Darger in the context either of children’s books and cartoons (anything from Tom & Jerry to the terrifyingly brutal but also extremely popular German children’s book Strumpelpeter) or of contemporary art (Maggie Robbins’$2 1989 “Barbie Fetish,” for instance–a naked Barbie doll stuck all over with little nails), and it’s MacGregor who begins to look like the outsider. Indeed, seen in a contemporary light, Darger begins to look like a progenitor of that rather common, campy sensibility–what might be called Mouseketeer Gothic–that sees angelic pop-culture figures as actually creepy and frightening. (Think “It’s a Small World” or David Lynch.)

It’s ironic, too, that critics such as MacGregor persist in seeing Darger as an unself-conscious obsessive, unable to separate his life from his created fantasy world, since in fact Darger’s work is full of precisely the sort of self-referentiality that in a contemporary insider artist would be read as a rather ordinary example of postmodern detachment. Many of Darger’s watercolors, for instance, include depictions of framed pictures whose images are indistinguishable from the images outside them. In the written epic, Darger himself appears as several different characters, on both sides of the conflict–private Darger, Darger the war correspondent, volcanology expert Hendro Dargar, etc. Darger’s very title draws attention to the fact that the epic takes place “in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.” And the written version of Darger’s epic even contains a number of amusing references to the strange task of drawing and writing about Darger’s own grisly subject. To wit:

About noon, a frenzied mob of Glandelinians came swarming for the prison of Violet and her sisters. The standards they followed were the heads and even gashed bodies of six beautiful little children, with their intestines protruding from their bellies, and every one of these were on pikes dripping with blood. …

[When Violet and her sisters appeared] they thrust up on to their windows the heads and bodies of these lovely children, and managed to cast them inside amongst them. Then, bursting into the doors, they thrust the heads into their laps, ordering them to make a copy of them in pencil.

Although it seems to them that they would die of horror, [Violet and her sisters] thought it best to obey. … [T]hey started to draw the hideous bodies and heads, being good at drawing pictures in the most perfect form.

What to make of this? Depending on your taste, you might conclude that Darger is indeed a deranged outsider confusing himself with his characters. Or you might see him as a latter-day Grimm, in whose macabre universe getting your intestines torn out and sketching other children’s severed heads are regrettable but quite ordinary parts of life as a little girl. On either interpretation, though, the paintings remain extraordinary, and extraordinarily beautiful.