Sunday, June 08, 2008


The poet Dante famously fell in love with Beatrice the first time he saw her, at age ten. He later wrote:
At that very moment, and I speak the truth, the vital spirit, the one that dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart... spoke these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi. ("Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.")
Dante only met Beatrice once more before she died at a young age, yet he devoted most of his life to writing poetry in her honor. She was his inspiration for La Vita Nuova and he gave her a starring role in his epic masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, as the person who guides him to Paradise.

Dante and Beatrice at the gates of Paradise, by Dore

The artist Henry Darger (1892-1973) led an agonized childhood. Born in poverty and orphaned at an early age, he was sent away at age 12 to the Asylum for Feeble Minded Children in Lincoln Illinois, a brutal place where children were abused and mistreated. At age 16, he escaped to Chicago where he found work as a janitor and lived a reclusive life, writing and drawing alone in his shabby apartment at night. In 1911, Darger became transfixed by a photograph in the Chicago Daily News of a young missing girl, Elsie Paroubek.

He kept this picture among his treasured possessions. He painted Elsie's portrait and built a small shrine for her in a nearby barn. After a month long search, police discovered the murdered girl's body in a drainage canal.

Devastated, Darger developed a story based upon Paroubek. He made her the leader of a child rebellion against evil adults who practiced child slavery. In his story, the adults (called "Glandelinians") murdered the young girl, but her martyrdom led to an epic war between the forces of good (children) and evil (adults).

Darger's story grew into a 5,145-page masterpiece which consumed most of the rest of his life. He called his chronicle The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The Vivian girls were sisters who led the war against the Glandelinians, a struggle which grew to involve armies of naked young girls, typhoons that wiped out nations, a winged monster called "a Handsome Dude," and the massacre of thousands of cities of innocents. I find Darger's illustrations extraordinarily beautiful:

Despite all the horrors detailed in his lengthy war, Darger insisted that the "assassination of [Elsie's character] was the most shocking child murder ever caused by the Glandelinian Government."

He became so obssessed with Elsie's photograph that he risked eternal damnation by confronting God over it. Darger lost his precious photo and became convinced that God had taken it to test him. When Darger could not find it anywhere, he began to threaten God that the Glandelinians would win the war unless the photo was returned. "In case of no return by March 1916, the Glandelinians will not be forced into submission but shall progress better than before..." Darger kept extending God's deadline but after many years, when God failed to comply, a livid Darger made his counterpart in the story, a Captain Henry Darger, defect to the side of the Glandelinians.

How could an artist such as Dante or Darger draw a lifetime of inspiration from such a brief glimpse of a girl? I've always liked this famous scene from Citizen Kane, where an elderly man describes how in his youth he caught a glimpse of a girl in a white dress and thought about her for the rest of his life:

You never know when they will happen, those little moments that can be mined forever. Often they seem to depend upon just the right errant breeze passing through the hair of just the right person. But if a single glimpse can sustain a lifetime of artistic devotion, it tells you something about the untapped potential for all those other moments that fly by unheeded.



Austin Kleon said...

great post!

Jack Ruttan said...

Ultra creepy of course.

Those images remind me of Japanese woodcuts (there's a better, more technically correct descriptive word for these.)

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, a. kleon!

Jack, Darger's story gets about ten layers creepier than this. It takes great restraint to write about him because there are so many fascinating, creepy aspects to him. But he is definitely worth following up on your own. (As his mental condition worsened, he claimed that he personally witnessed Elsie's murder!)

Anonymous said...

These women are all muses because the men were willing to sublimate. Today men don't sublimate. They are just impatient assholes.

Jack Ruttan said...

It was an interesting film they made, which has been my sole contact with Darger's story, outside of a couple of web links. They tried to avoid coming to conclusions about his motivation or history, maybe to avoid sounding too sensationalistic, but I was getting the impression they were doing it because if he was thought to be a murderer, that might blight his chances in the mainstream art market (though improve them in others.)

Still, I'm seeing a lot of documentaries about oddball artists, or artists with strange lives, and it's sad to think that a good artist with perhaps an unremarkable life has less chance of getting his or her art talked about.

Mind you, they did Charles Schultz, who is pretty unremarkable, except for drawing one of the most influential comic strips of the 20th century, but the biography (and the depressing documentary) went a fair ways in presenting him as a monster of moodiness and neglect.

scruffy said...

An excellent post, but, and i apologize if these seems flippant, but does it occur to anyone else that these guys were on a road to pedophilia in order to recapture the lost innocence of their own childhoods? Wouldn't be the first time artists and being unhinged were thought to be connected.

birdbirder said...

wonderful, thanks!

David Apatoff said...

Jack, I know there is an armchair psychiatrist who is going around claiming that Darger may have been haunted because he killed Elsie himself, but I personally think that is irresponsible. I wasn't trying to promote his wild theory. My point was that as Darger's mental condition worsened, he began to hallucinate that he witnessed her murder, and even that he was Elsie. His book is multi-faceted in this respect.

Scruffy, I understand your concern, especially with Darger (who drew hundreds of naked little girls with tiny penises-- possibly because he never saw a naked girl). But I think that for the most part, the only eros in these relationships is the eros inherent in courtly love, beatific love, and (yes, anonymous) sublimation and restraint.

Thanks, birdbirder, you are very kind.

Unknown said...

Interesting post. I too in the beginning began to question the whole pedophile angle however growing up in my teens in Puerto Rico I was exposed to many a Spanish tale of just that, man, young girl and the love between them. Although the stories never do state of a kiss or anything in that respect I also realize that for the era in which these books were written, 14 year old girls were already set for marriage if not sooner. Of course many thing have changed since then, but in context one can understand the relationship forged.

However as much as I understand I don't approve of it but accept in a historical and factual context.

Artists, regardless of what medium they work in, have always tended to be 'different" to what the average person would consider to be normal. Hell, even I myself although I don't wear any of the stereotypical artist wear or accessories but due to my tastes in music, film and art alongside my conduct and mood at times have been labeled as arrogant, weird, strange, demanding, inconsiderate, to name a few. I couldn't really pin the why but most of time I just feel a certain way and I make it known, that is may be abrasive to some and not others is not of my concern. And yet, I'm still a conservative in contrast to other artists.

Great blog by the way David. Would love to show you some of my current work for analysis.

mdfay said...

Great blog, glad I found it.

David Apatoff said...

c.b. and amin, Thanks for joining in.

faymd1, thank you especially for your service.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog quietly for a long time now. But this precious post brought tears to my eyes.
Thank you!

am said...

said before but here goes again.

great post.

David Apatoff said...

e.l., these little snippets from the world move me, so I am always glad to hear when they move someone else as well.

Alan, the people who think I'm an idiot never feel constrained by the fact that it has already been said by someone else, so I surely do hope you won't feel constrained by someone's prior compliment!

DB Dowd said...

Holy cow, this strikes me as a dressed up illness. Darger became fixated upon a photograph and a story, okay. But the ghastly fantasies of disemboweled little girls seems to me like a sexualized imagination legitimized by umbrage at the murder of the little girl. The guy seems to have gotten off on the idea, frankly. No thanks, David. But great detective work, as always.

David Apatoff said...

db, I would not disagree with your concerns. I think all of these guys were obsessed in some way or another, and all of their obsessions were multi-faceted, with dark undertones and radiant overtones. This art has deep roots, and the artists are genuinely tortured.

Anonymous said...

I recommend the documentary "In the Realms of the Unreal" if you can get Netflix in Singapore. It's got ANIMATED versions of Darger's cartoon drawings.

Of course, you may have seen it already.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Henry Darger looks like he could be considers one of the forefather of Pop Surrealism. I see work kinda like this on and all the time. Kinda sad that I never heard of him before reading this.

As for theories of him being a pedophile or whatever. It seems to me that with his work he may have thought he was empowering the youth. Or perhaps empowering himself by getting over the struggles of his own youth through the eyes of that photo and the struggle he created for her likeness in those images. If he is a pedophile I suppose everyone who gets ralled up over the Ramsey case is as well.

Why is it that so many people want to make killers, thieves, and sexaul deviants out of artists? Artists are no different than anyone else in my view. It is just that by putting their work out to be seen, or if it ends up seen later, it exposes more about them than what we might know of something who does not create art. Everyone is a bit funky. Visual artists are just easier to spot.

scruffy said...

i'm not sure who's talking about killers and thieves. As for sexual deviancy, i'm not trying to make anybody into anything. i'm just noticing. To obsess over anything is usually not healthy. Artists tend to obsess. To obsess over romantic feelings for a child... Hey, i'm willing to hope the best for the guy but his art says otherwise. It's not the search for true and innocent love that worries me, we all know that love is broken, so as a metaphor, a child makes sense. But the article and the artwork seemed to say that he took the metaphor to a bit of an extreme. i'm not judging the guy, i don't have that right, i'm just asking if we're careful in our choice of heroes?

Adrienne said...

I agree. I would not want to be living in this guy's head. It would not have surprised me if you said they found her in -his- back yard.

I understand your point of wanting to illustrate how someone can get obsessed with something, but I have to say there are better ways than putting up mutilation art.

Adrienne said...

And frankly, why is this post called "Repin" ?? I was expecting Ilya Repin, and instead, I'm subjected to this.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to carry these awful images around in my head for the next few weeks. :(

David Apatoff said...

Ummmm.... Adrienne, this post is not called "Repin." I did a post on him a while back. But I agreethat Darger is strog medicine.

illustrationISM.... said...

Truth is stranger/macabre than fiction!
Lord Have Mercy on the Souls of Darger (& Elsie)!

mark jaquette @
illustrationISM & BAMmGRAPHICS

Anonymous said...

I'm one of the many people who have worked on the Darger article at wikipedia. I've read a lot of his stuff, and I think people who ascribe sinister motives to his work are missing the boat.

That said, I'm curious as to a remark in the comments that Henry reported having witnessed Elsie's murder or even that he himself was Elsie. Other than an identification out of solidarity in an abuse survivor's experience, could you direct me to the source for your information? Thanks, Bluejay