By Linda Wallace

Author's thoughts on the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Friday, September 01, 2006


I went to an exhibit of Henry Darger's work at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle last week. He was an extraordinary man, not always in a good way, but definitely not your average bear.
Darger apparently never shared his work with the public. When the artist died in 1973 in Chicago, his landlord, Nathan Lerner, found stacks of diaries, drawings, weather journals, an eight-volume autobiography and a 15,145-page novel in words and pictures titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger was a recluse who worked away at his writing and paintings for decades. I don't know if that is a monument to artistic passion or a testimony to an appallingly lonely life. Along with the art were collections of old newspapers and magazines, bits of string saved for bundling his manuscripts and a miscellany of other debris. It seems a small miracle that the landlord recognized the value of piles of what many would have thought of as garbage, perhaps because he was a photographer himself.

The paintings are quite beautiful but often disturbing in subject matter. Some of the larger ones are pieced together in long scrolls with many images of violence against little girls--strangling being one of the more popular. It crossed my mind that he might have painted what he knew--a serial killer who got away with it--but in reading about his life I came across nothing to suggest that could be true. You can't view the drawings without noting that a great many of the girls have small penises. Some say the girls have penises because they're empowered princesses, some think they're Darger's emotional surrogates and some speculate that he never learned the anatomical difference between boys and girls. Who knows?

What I find more interesting is the whole idea of working for a lifetime without recognition. In our time of celebrities, creative and not-so-creative people--artists, writers, actors, musicians, athletes, newscasters, politicians, your next-door neighbor--all compete madly for attention with press releases, Web sites, blogs, sound bites, sky writing. Look at me, look at me! (Look at me at Would I continue writing if I thought no one would ever read a single word I wrote? I don't think so.

My daughter and I often bemoan the fact that an artist has to be a businessperson if she is to have any chance of making a living with her work. At her university art students often major in business. You have to be very skilled at saying "look at me" if you are to succeed in a creative field. So sad.

I wonder if Henry Darger would have posted on a blog if he'd had the technology available to him. It's probably a good thing he never had the opportunity. He might never have had the time to write about the Vivian Girls.


At 11:35 AM, Blogger EilisFlynn said...

But throughout time there have been various ways to wasting time—blogs are only the most recent example!

At 12:46 PM, Blogger EilisFlynn said...

That aside, Henry Darger's work sounds bizarre and intriguing. I'll have to look into it.


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