Henry Darger, like photographer Vivian Maier, has been claimed by the proper art world and there’s nothing we people out here can do to reclaim him. It’s too far gone. But any of us might have quietly labored with our own massive creatives works without any proper training or any clear intention of trying to introduce them to the world, to make a living off them, we all get Darger.
Darger is called an artist, but he’s an illustrator at heart, as well as a novelist. It’s not as if the proper art world has ever embraced illustrators very comfortably, using the sheer commercialism of the venture to enforce a chasm between the disciplines. And Darger seems to take most of his influence from the the commercial world of children’s books and comics, more than any fine art. As this very book points out, Darger’s vast fantasy world is more aligned with L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series than anything else, and I feel fairly sure he would have at least courted the idea of sharing it with the world in a popular culture way had the right representative of the right publishing house shown up on his doorstep at the right time with that suggestion, and, of course, full knowledge of the work going on inside.
This collection of his work (Amazon, Powell’s) is immensely comprehensive, fully impressive, and the accompanying essays are more readable than the typical academic ones in art books, giving a good overview of where Darger came from and why the art world has embraced him.
Darger, more than anything, represents a mystery to that world. Self-taught and accomplished, quirky and original, dedicated, talented but rough — how in the world did he exist, both without the wider world knowing him and without him seeking it out? How did he manage to build decades and decades of work around a goofy children’s fantasy, with some cross-section into Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Shirley Temple-like fetishism. They don’t really know, though they do try and reconstruct.
Still, we have the work to speak for him, and this book gives a full offering of almost everything it has to say. At times maniacal, especially when incorporating collage, while at other instances mannered as it indulges in art deco styled children’s fantasy illustration of the time or obsessive stylized cartography, Darger does manage to mix things ups by creating sprawling illustrations that rely on his mania more than his manners. In the end, it all looks much more interesting than anything L. Frank Baum concocted, anyhow.
As it is, it’s hard to boil down what the work has to say into anything succinct. It’s far too sprawling and, surprise, personal. But that’s the real sign of a worthy artist. It can’t be turned into something trite. It remains a mystery for as long as you stare at it, a mystery that will probably never be solved. I’d love to see storytellers embrace Darger as an influence as much as any fine artist. This book is a great place to start your study, or at least act as a springboard to casual contemplation of the secret sprawl.