Sunday, May 17, 2009

Henry Darger's "Realms of the Unreal"

A few years ago, I went to see an exhibit at the Frye Museum. It was about the work of Henry Darger (1892-1973), a recluse whose artwork was found after his death. Upon clearing out his apartment, his landlord found hundreds of pages of handcrafted art and notes. Once they were put together, it was realized that it was a story, no an epic. The story revolves around the seven daughters of Robert Vivian. They are princesses of a Christian nation called Abbieannia. They help rise against the evil John Manley who maintains a regime of child slaves imposed by the Glandelinians. Children fight in their own defense, sadly often slain or viciously tortured by the Glandelinians.

Henry was orphaned very young and spent his childhood in institutions. He lived in the same Chicago apartment for 40 years. He collected newspapers and magazines, mostly from the trash. Henry used cutouts and trace pieces to create pictures then he went over them with watercolors. Throughout his life, he did this and created the epic story of the rebel Vivian Girls in what would become known as "Realms of the Unreal".

As I walked through the exhibit, I was fascinated by his repetitious drawings and tracing. He used a lot of the same images again and again. I was also curious about the story and why he was such a fierce defender of abused children. I found out that Henry named one of his characters, Annie Aronburg, after a girl he read about in the Chicago Times in 1911. This five year old girl had been found strangled and her murderer never found. That story thouched him enough that he included her in his story, maybe as a way to defend her. The final portion of the exhibit was several very large panels of The Vivian Girls rise and battle scenes showing two different endings to the story. If you have time, read about this gentleman or see the documentary done about his work and the quiet man who created a world of his own and stood up for what he believed in the only way he could.


  1. Wow, I would love to see the exhibit. When I watched the documentary, I went into not having a clue as to who he is or was. There was a sense of fascination for his self-taught abilities and the depth involved in his story telling. I can't recall off the top of my head now, but I believe that said that this would have been the longest story ever written....something like 10 or 15 thousand pages? I was really saddened and touched about his attempts at trying to adopt a child for so many years. I couldn't help but wonder after the documentary ended, if Henry didn't suffer from some pretty serious abuse or perhaps witnessed some very serious abuse in his stays at the various institutions. It's sad that back in the "old" days, when they didn't know what to do with a child or even an adult that was different, they'd stick them in a mental institute. Brings to mind another sad story of the actress Francis Farmer. Another movie that wrenched my heart out. That one made me soooo angry. Enough said!

  2. Oh great! Now I have to go find the Francis Farmer doc! I will add that to my list..