-More Ramblings On Henry Darger W.I.P-Posted: July 10, 2015
Just as a warning this is going to get long because I’m going to be making notes and writing impressions for a lot of things, people and the like that I read about to show the breadth of the research. Last year I used notebooks for this primarily and that didn’t clearly translate exactly how much was looked at so here’s the remedy. (I apologise in advance for the word count, afraid it’s called ramblings in this case for a reason.)
Recently have been reading Henry Darger by Klaus Biesenbach and found several artists which seemed to resonate well with the subject, or how I would like to pursue it.
In the book itself a lot of the art was related to some string or them that Darger had, or a shared obsession or perhaps even a perceived insanity to their acts. A lot of the cited artwork did reach quite badly to be actually relevant to some of the subjects as a few are literally just people in forests like some of the work Darger had created which seems a bit of a dubiously fine line to link and compare it to.
Linking four to not flood this blog with links, may link more but at the moment I have every artist mentioned in the book highlighted so lets not post ALL of those.
For the first artist, it seems fitting that someone who paints in a traditional Chinese brush art style which has all the looseness and fluidity to it that Darger’s work lacks is compared to one and other. Themes like mythology, folklore, traditional urban stories that elevated into myth always seem to have this unique quality that blends really well with these kinds of art styles and perhaps if Darger had been born into a time before the huge rise of commericialisation and pop culture he would have created work like this.
Keeping to that point, it seems important to realise that Darger seems to actually have been an early example of someone completely consumed with pop culture and with what he enjoys (despite a lot of his art being fiscally impractical due to the copying process). I’d liken him to someone who writes fan fiction and more crudely so traces their favourite character from a series and reposts it on deviant art saying “LOOK HERE’S MY ORIGINAL CHARACTER, NO STEALING”. ….It is really hard to not picture really terrible sonic recolours as I type this.
But that’s one line of a very large web. I’m sure that will be exceedingly difficult to untangle. Like untangling several pairs of headphones in the dark.
Oh boy Joseph Cornell, I really didn’t think I’d see him again after having to do a project based around his favourite method of work (way too many boxes man) but the point made about the obsession he had for a celebrity child much like Darger’s does mirror his obsession with perfect little children. In fact some of these boxes Cornell created were something like the shrines you may see as a joke in a kids cartoon (Like Helga from Hey Arnold!) worshipping someone perhaps they admire or wish to exonerate to a higher level of importance. There is no doubt that given the importance Darger himself placed upon the photos he copied, traced or referenced his little girls from he likely would have made objects in his own fashion should he have had the means.
The obsessive repetitive nature of it also works well in relation to Darger as although everything is in it’s own square prison repetitively the contents and intention of each image varies massively, as Darger’s work did despite keeping mainly to large panoramic views, collages and large detailed scenes. As for how this might effect work flow, well to create anything using found objects requires quite a bit of collection and sometimes basically hoarding as the box I made in my first year of college (below) attested to. Finding actual appropriate materials without either grabbing everything from everywhere or having a ton of money is extremely difficult.
This is one of the works featured in the Henry Darger book I had read and I thought it felt similar to how Darger tends to portray innocent individuals in a dark atmosphere (which is also probably why the author himself chose to include it). While looking for more of Min Kim’s work I stumbled upon an illustrator named Kim Minji, and interestingly enough their work (couldn’t find any english information on who exactly they are or even their gender) is very reminiscent of the work Darger created (although a lot more refined and more akin to smoothness of a clay-mation model (such as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline) or artwork like that of the series the Guardians of the Childhood illustrated and written by William Joyce.
It is inspiring to see the same elements that Darger seemed to explore in his work used in a more light hearted context although the power with a lot of these visual languages for children’s books seems to be in that it suggests a mystique rather than the wrongness of some of what Darger depicted. To elucidate on my previous statement, not wrong in the sense of children being naked (although that is uncomfortable to many) or wrong to them having penises (also uncomfortable to many) but the violence and sheer terror the children experience in the illustrations as the story progresses and ultimately deviates into several time-lines where the children are victorious or perhaps suffer in defeat.
To continue with Min Kim’s work, it seems attractive because of the mixture of super saturated colours carefully used with the huge amounts of unsaturated elements and just complete darkness in the atmosphere. Her other works are much brighter, painterly styled images that sometimes vary in quality although very few seem to have a consistent theme. The stylistic choices when making the colour choices certainly do seem to lead to a horror movie style atmosphere in the imagery despite the small, petite, innocent girl pictured. The Vivian girls themselves sometimes feel like that, like uncanny children walking through the set of some horrific thriller out against them and sometimes perpetrating horrors themselves (let’s face it, giving kids guns doesn’t really make them good either. Hunger Games and many other media with children perpetrating or fighting back against a villain (that and terrible terrible Lord of the Flies vibes) with the argument of it being for the great good. Any real life example of that would more often than not testify to the opposite once you’ve seen the after effects and the eventual rise of yet another leader unwilling to fix the issues in the country.).
“In some of the panels in this series such as, “And they are like wild beasts”, it is shocking to realize that the “beasts” are not the army but Spanish women fiercely fighting to protect themselves and their children from a group of French soldiers.”
It is interesting to muse on the meanings behind the many etchings Goya created within this series based around ar and perhaps the least interpretative part of the entirety of the scenes is that although you may be joining in to attack people who are perpetrating unspeakable horrors against others it doesn’t necessarily make you any better than them. The villains in Darger’s story always seemed to lack depth and much of a motive besides “BURN, PILLAGE, STRANGLE, YESSSS DEATH, YEEEESSSS SLAVERY, YEEEEEeeeessss” which is awfully simplistic for how much actual graphic adult content is in it. But, suppose it’s easier to do a flat villain to try to highlight the glory of the child martyrs and messiahic archtypes than to develop a group he clearly was using to put things he hated (disrespecting faith, slavery, hurting children and women, all male figures) as well as involving weathers to symbolise some of the worst of the battles, the actual civil war style battles and situations and being able to morbidly count off who was gutted and crucified as a prisoner of war or a rebel of the slaves.
The man certainly had some less than kosher past times.
Other artists (musicians, painters, illustrators, performance artists, writers, photographers and the like) involved with Darger (tangentially, through similarities, inspiration or the like):
Laurel Nakadate, John R. Niell, W.W Denslow, Nathan Lerner, Kiyoko Lerner, Rembrant, Titian, Cezanne, Eakins,Ad Reinhardt,
And many others. It is perhaps worth noting that most of these names came out of a single book, however some are more relevant than others with sometimes at best tenuous links and at worst an extremely contrived link. Exploring themes of sexuality, purity, innocence, childhood, expression, repetition, the wild and unusual, war, civility, the inhumanity of wars and slavery. Everyone has extremely varied subject matter with the work featured within the Henry Darger book as well as in the work they have in their portfolios. Atmospheres often dark, gloomy, or pastel coloured and seemingly innocent yet with a darkness lurking behind them, they draw and enchant or sometimes cause you to scoff and dismiss, rally against and cause controversy on a subject most of the world is incredibly unwilling to talk about most of the time (sexuality) and worse still the sexuality expressed through depicting children.
There are many avenues to explore and things to consider, hopefully this will be an enlightening experience.
Detailed account of what Darger was like, clothing, personality and presumably his gait. Can’t help thinking his internalised way of living seems awfully lonely, but I suppose he lived through the characters in his head, the endless collections, mass and the mimicking of his boss. best keep it for reference should I decide to depict him as he was. Of note, Nathan and Kiyoko Learner were his landlords and the people who discovered his work, Nathan was an art lecturer and photographer, designer and his widowed wife Kiyoko is a professional Musician.
” “He grew up to be emotionally disturbed as an adult. But he was able to save himself, to keep himself functioning, by having this life goal, this creation to live for. His real life was a pale shadow of his creation. That says a lot about the healing power of art in this man’s life. Art can save your life.””
More articles with more details about preserving his art after and his life and how the works were found and notoriety acquired.
And also one of the two largest collections of Darger works, the other being in the Folk Art Museum.
Leading on from the intuit link, it made me aware of the artist Grandma Moses….and also naive art which seems as though it’s almost the same as outsider art, although it seems less through isolation and more through lack of traditional training on its own. Her work feels very similar to Darger’s and I wonder if that’s because the settings he used for the great panoramic views were based on what he remembered of his younger life when he worked on a farm? It would make sense in that case, because very little scenery seems like a city like Chicago itself was and he was always regretful of running away from the institute he had been living in for around a decade of his life.
The actual brush marks with Grandma Mose’s work seems to be more well placed and detailed, as it seems Darger thought tracing was a short cut to drawing well (as they found in one of his art books) it seems his line itself stayed more shaky from the uncertainty that particular medium brings. (Although later works seem more confident)
Trying to distinguish the difference between folk art, outsider art and naive art…..so far it seems to be that outsider artists have a unique view of the world due to being largely outside of it and also having little to no education of anything (let along art education) and naive is a common person perusing art with as much passion as a feverish professional might. And folk art seems to mean basically practical art that isn’t necessarily popular, but common place and…not regarded as high brow. ….Why do I feel like these three are awfully similar to each other?
Outsider and naive art seems to have some strange concept of authenticity linked into these particularly unpolished categories of it, as if it being more raw makes it more valid than something else? Trying to write off a subjective opinion and declare validity over one thing or another always seems a fairly pointless topic when almost every form of art serves some kind of purpose to the creator or intended recipient.
Like, Darger clearly lived through his art. He dedicated so much of his tiny room to the actual collection of materials and catalogued everything, piled things up, bundled them and then even gave up his bed for his larger 12 feet long piece to be able to put them down safely.
Rousseau appears to be an artist who was deeply involved in his work although his proportions were screwed and other aspects of his work was incredibly detailed and enchanting. His works do bear a striking to similarity to how Darger created his work, more so in that as opposed to necessarily excelling in a lot of areas it seems he excelled in a few of many. For example, Rousseau seems to have had great difficulty with proportions of animals and humans but the colours, finish and mark making he could apply to the environments appear quite stunning. Darger is similar in that for all the faults in his work the compositions complexities often made up for perhaps clumsy lineart and less than stellar colour schemes.
Following on from Rousseau, Max Ernst created work (specifically his grey scale drawings) which were completely unsubtly horrific and rather remind of horror films. Darger, if he had had less of a penchant for bright colours despite gruesome scenes likely would’ve gone in a similar direction with his disturbing scenes. I still feel incredibly disturbed by the crucified children and the disembowelment….hell even some of the not violent scenes. The repetitive images gave off an incredibly creepy vibe, with so many repeated stiff, doll like features, it portrayed the uncanny valley effect way too strongly.
It has to be said that a level of fear/disturbing imagery reminding you of a horror comic which made you afraid of the dark for 5+ years is quite a thing to achieve with just one image as opposed to a 5 volume collection of horror (I’m looking at you Junji Ito, never again. NEVER).
Max Ernst’s works are also reminiscent of a song that (I think) displays people as…basically having an outer human layer and an inner animalistic layer, to work the symbolism in super deep there’s a face stealer and the guns steal faces. Would not be surprised at all if this were perhaps inspired by Max Ernst, although the idea now of portraying humans as other animals isn’t that uncommon.
How does this relate to Darger? Well with everything I am reading it seems a lot of famous surrealist artists took inspiration presumably from his portrayals of genders, mish mash creatures and unconventional use of story telling (and dire need of an editor).
As with Ernst, Andre Breton, the found of the Surrealism movement and poet seemed to have been inspired by Darger and other “Outsider” artists. It seems Surrealism in general liked to take a lot of cues from artists with less than conventional back stories and visual languages (and mediums).
Although it seems a bit contentious to actually call Darger an outsider artist when almost the entirety of his work was created by appropriating other people’s work. But perhaps the aspect of him….rather obviously having something that made him appear a little different to others is the one aspect that fits him together with the others, besides reclusive-ness and obsession. The themes within most Outsider artists don’t seem to overlap besides the introversion and the obsessive documentation of whatever they have dedicated their time to such as Tehching Hsieh (performance artist, to what I think is an insane degree with documentation much like Darger had with his ten year weather journal, instead Hsieh did performances in what could be described as sensory deprivation and torture), Roman Opalka with his Details series of paintings which feature thousands of white numbers counting up on his canvases that started in 1965 and ended in 2011 with his death, Yayoi Kusama whose subject matter always focuses in some way on polka dots or repetitive patterns which she has been using in her art work since she was 10 years old (she is 86 now), On Kawara who documented dates, days, letters and photos and was a conceptual artist best known for the “Today” paintings which as the title states had ‘today’ on them (the date) and were simply that on a monochromatic background; began in 1966 and through out his life making it an actual documentation o his life until his death in 2014.
It feels as if most outsider artists or particularly obsessive artists turn inwards to escape the world as perhaps they cannot cope with it or do not wish to cope with it, I’m sure that is a very relatable feeling to most people and certainly isn’t isolated, nomads, hermits, men of the cloth who wish to remain in isolation and live their lives dedicated to a craft.
Relating to Darger’s nudity of children, Thomas Eaken was in a similar position although his issues were in the 19th century with nude study for art and anatomy, in mixed viewing which received wide criticisms and it eventually ended in him being let go from his teaching position at the time. Another similarly controversial aspect was the gruesomeness of some of his paintings of surgery, specifically The Gross Clinic. The justification of something gruesome being depicted always has a religious or underlying justification but instead in that painting it was proposed to be the reality of surgery and the gruesomeness of the medical industry. Needless to say people didn’t take to it well, although it is now considered his master piece. Later his interest switched to animals as well reminiscent of Eadweard Muybrige’s images of motion and interest in motion, his included animals and later boxers.
Controversy of nudity always seems to be an issue as it is also considered child pornography itself, if you are under 18 (in the UK). It always seems to have been an extremely tricky subject to tackle as the nature of having nudity is thought in itself to be titillating just by existing. You can go to any art website on the internet and find someone calling a nude picture pornography, so the misconception and actual fear of nudity seems to be ingrained into us from the start.
But, the issue of it being children seems a larger one, perhaps stemming from the worry that anyone could find something titillating regardless of context or seeming innocent (people jack off to youtubers for gods sake) and drawing the fine line of when it may be ok to see a child nude and when it isn’t. Perhaps this relates quite deeply back to Sally Mann’s photos of her own children parading around as most young children would. It’s tricky, some things aren’t appropriate in public and taboo to be shown but it’s also stupid to ignore the reality of childhood especially when living in a rural area, you WILL have kids led in the fields naked trying to cool down or splashing about with just swim trunks on. Hell, we used to sit in our pants/shorts in infance school for PE without tops on when we were super young and that I’m sure isn’t appropriate now in the slightest.
As for the specifics of showing sexuality within children? That too…is an incredibly taboo topic and usually draws back to paedophilia. Rightly so as well, I’ve read articles on paedophilia before, mainly on how the unseen areas of the internet (or deep web) that aren’t indexed or listed are rife with….all sorts of horrific ideas and acts. And there being camps of people who…don’t want to act on things they feel for kids and desperately want help with it so they don’t hurt someone and others who actively justify it by saying children have a sexuality themselves and are sexual creatures….and basically taking advantage of a child. It’s….a really horrible subject. A lot of people blanket hate it but sometimes those people literally just need help to keep themselves away from children but they won’t get it so it gets worse and things keep spiralling out of control for them. Maybe I’m too sympathetic with that subject but it’s wrong to condemn someone when they’re literally asking you to help them be able to stop. Still no sympathy for the many people who act on it, or justify it, or….all the other awful shit people do to get access to children.
But it’s arguable is Darger did feel something sexual to children, perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t. It doesn’t seem he acted on it if he did and if he didn’t then…the symbolism of the girl’s sexuality and gender abnormality is extremely difficult to dig into. But, let’s try.
There are a couple theories to explain Darger’s sexualisation of the girls.
Although he could have been gay it is mostly speculation, and would still not explain the gender swapping of the children. There is a lot of erasure and hidden LGBT+ individuals in the art world but sometimes the theories of someone’s sexuality devolve into pure fantasy more or less. I don’t blame anyone who wishes to write that and feel vilified that someone may have been gay or etc but if it can’t be proved it really is just a fantasy and wishful thinking, just as we can’t prove that a lot of individuals in history may have had autism, in the very least they displayed symptoms but it is still mere conjecture.
Could have been an attribute, he did trace the children and remove their clothes but there is also the argument that he made them naked as the day they were born to display their vulnerability and innocence. Either one can’t necessarily be proved or could have both been true, we will probably never know for sure.
Could’ve not been fine in his body, not provable again.
4: The Wizard of Oz, specifically Ozma herself from the books.
Ozma was a character who swapped genders in the Oz books and that may have led to the gender ambiguity of the Vivian girls, as well as it possibly being a symbolic addition for the children (as written below).
““Darger often depicts his girls with penises. There are a number of possible explanations, none very satisfying. Being as sheltered and religious as he was, he may never have considered that female genitalia look any different than male organs. Or perhaps he was endowing his little amazons with male equipment to indicate their warrior status.”
“Whether Darger was gay or not, the sexuality of the Vivian Girls and the violence depicted in his art make him a controversial character. Robert Hughes, art critic for Time, suggested that Darger was the “Poussin of pedophilia.”
Titian- would like to study his work for colour theory, his work isn’t as muddy as some of the “old masters” works seem to be. Sacred and profane love being the one I’m most interested in looking at.
Cezanne- I’ve studied his work before but it’d be neat to look at them again, especially with look at how he used bright colours in less saturated environments and to cheat at making shapes.
Sean Landers: created work which featured a lot of his experiences written obsessively, it a good way of portraying a point while also making words you wish to stand out more bold. His paintings are creepy but his writing turns into art in itself much like typography (even though it’s normal handwriting) and turns into a creature of it’s own.
Tehching Hsieh: Performance artist who subjected himself to basically sensory deprivation and torture, too many times. Clearly very dedicated and full of self control, he stopped making art abruptly even though it seems most of his projects have had many obsessive qualities to them. Really interesting how Darger’s obsessions look side by side other obsessive documentations, shame I can’t find any resources that document his weather diaries if there were any common themes besides description of the weather and how wrong the weather man was.
Yayoi Kusama- Obsessed with polka dots and other repetitive patterns, uses it for sculptures, paintings, exhibitions, etc, proof of someone with the kind of “Outsider” style becoming famous and presumably popular in the art industry. I think I remember reading she also was a huge influence on Pop Art and something about copying her but that sort of claim seems a little dubious.
Martin Johnson Heade- Beautiful artworks reminicent of really well done special effects with an ethereal quality to them, I feel as though if Darger had been a trained artist in his life time he could’ve perhaps created very similarly themed paintings. Well, barring the what ifs it’s also that the works themselves feel like something Darger may have enjoyed should he have had the opportunity to view them.
Rembrandt- Life filled with misfortune but a successful artist and art dealer, paintings obviously worth studying and looking at. Everything feels dark and sad to me so it’s definitely an example of extreme, dramatic lighting regardless of what he actually painted.
Richard Prince- Nurses, took a normal subject and turned them creepy through saturated colours and carefully placed unsaturated colours, obscured eyes and faces and generally combining to create an incredibly unsettling series of paintings. They are quiet beautiful, in a disturbing depraved kind of way. It another part of the nurses collection have also been appropriated from vintage book covers and posters with areas removed and scenery more or less absent, and takes up a large portion of his portfolio so it is a slightly obsessive series of work. Taking someone innocent or just run of the mill and turning them into a horror or into a scene that makes you feel fear fits pretty well with Darger and how uncomfortable the girls naked, with tallywhackers (erect or not), strangled, dead, or disembowelled make a lot of people feel.
Speaking of disturbing I wasn’t expecting to see he’d illustrated the 7 dwarves gang banging Snow White.
Could’ve really done without that mental imagery.
Roman Opalka- Painted numbers obsessively on canvases slowly turning them whiter and whiter despite the numbers starting on I believe a black canvas, recorded his voice later on in the project and worked on the project until his death. This was a very literal expression of time and progression, most times you can see this with works that are ongoing such as the art style of an ongoing comic changing and evolving, but it seems to be less obvious to the eye in painting and more fine art based works. I don’t personally understand quite what the point of making the canvases was unless it’s sole purpose was to document? But either way it seems an awfully dedicated life long project to undertake for eight hours daily until you pass and the progression of your life ends. Truly an expression of how much of you is put into everything you create, I suppose.
On Kawara- Painted dates different where he lived and where he didn’t on small canvases, documenting dates which held no importance to some and all the importance to others and detailing the life of the every day and the mundane as a concept of time flowing forward and these dates dying on their gravestone like canvases.
Turner: Extremely dedicated to his craft, having been said to have created 19000 sketches of environments and landscapes that caught his eye as he travelled. The vast bredth of his travels likely became ample inspiration for all of his artwork and he was an extremely successful artist. I think because of the sheer quality of his work and the enormous amount it’d definitely worth studying his work (I think I have before at some point…? For an architecture project maybe…?) even if the work doesn’t directly related to Darger (far as I’m concerned Darger painted landscapes so really any artist which touched those is fair game for study to at least see how trained artists approached things in comparison to someone who was self taught and involved in pop culture instead of obsessive study and sketching of things he’d seen).
Other artists I’ve looked at in relation to Darger (* = is either relevant to his work, has a similar art style or a subject that is relevant or I think personally is executed well) :
Paul Chan, Amy Wilson*, Justin Liebermann, Anthony Goicola, Amy Cutler*, Melissa Brown, John Wesley*, Takashi Murakami*, Kyung Jung, Marcel Dzama*, Aya Takano*, Steve Mumford*, Takashi Murakami, Nobuyoshi Araki, Barnaby Furnas*, Yun Fei Ji* and Chiho Aoshima*.
^ A couple examples of work^
And I think that’s about it as far as artists goes, I tried to cover as many of the ones mentioned or that came up while researching everything. There were a few that were too obscure to even find anything on but I think this is probably a vast improvement compared to my research last year, even if I’ve condensed everything into this post just for my sanity, instead of putting it in a notebook or jotting down things in a sketchbook.
There are two more pages of artists in my notebook but I feel like I’ve looked at enough people right now and have hit the repeating stage of research (everyone’s work is different but unfortunately still similar when you compare anyone directly or tangentially related to Darger).