From within the ‘outsider’ came a wealth of imagination

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

“American Innocence, Welcome To The Realms of the Unreal” at the Laforet Museum brings together 64 paintings and some personal objects of the “outsider artist” Henry Darger, who was born in Chicago in 1892.

Just before his 4th birthday, his mother died giving birth to his sister, who was put up for adoption before he could see her — a double loss that is said to have haunted him for the rest of his life. After his father became ill and passed away, Henry grew up in a Catholic Boys School before being put in an institution for children with mental disabilities, for reasons that remain unclear. After escaping at around age 17, he spent most of his life doing menial work and attending Mass regularly.

He was known for being a harmless and scruffily dressed loner, but what no one realized until his death in 1973 was that he had a secret, and prolific, creative life. When clearing out his room, Darger’s landlord discovered not only endless piles of junk — balls of string, magazines, etc — but also a number of creative works, including an epic story of more than 15,000 pages and around 300 pictures, most of them illustrating the tale. Luckily, the landlord, a professional photographer, realized the work’s originality and perplexity so kept it.

Darger’s tale recalls the exploits of the Vivian Girls, the plucky heroines of his imaginary world, as they battle against a monstrous enemy race intent on capturing good Christian children and forcing them into a life of slavery. Much of the work was undertaken on a huge scale — often measuring up to 3 meters wide — but the first work on show in the exhibition is of a modest size. It introduces the Vivian Girls, lined up with remarkable symmetry — first in pretty pinafores and then in battle dress — and reveals some of Darger’s key themes, notably religion and violence against the innocent.

Although Darger had a delightful command of composition and color, he was no hot shot when it came to the human figure, despite it being the crucial focus of his work. But this didn’t deter him: He would either make collages using figures cut out of magazines, newspapers, comics and coloring books, or trace the outlines of them and then add clothes, color and extra detail — such as inexplicably affixing little penises on the girls when he depicted them naked, which was not infrequently.

This mix-and-match approach is in full effect in “At Norma Catherine, Nearing Enemy Lines Are Captured” — Norma Catherine being the location (many of these were given girls’ names) and the subject being the Vivian Girls, tellingly omitted from the cryptic title. Here, the girls are threatened by an Asian-looking heavy holding something resembling a nunchaku, while World War I troops make a beach landing in the background — though it is a Civil War-era gunslinger who actually helps them out.

Sometimes the girls need rescuing, at other times they are the rescuers. One scene shows them bravely shooting the enemy and freeing tied-up children. Darger essentially worked on variations of such defeats, victories and close escapes, many of which are imaginative and humorous (the girls are seen climbing down a “250 foot” rope and hiding, rolled-up in rugs).

While many of the works thematically resemble illustrations from children’s adventure stories, on occasion events turn particularly bloody. In one sequence of images, the girls begin in a room decorated with religious paintings and are given orders to capture enemy plans. Subsequent panels detail children being crucified as the Vivian Girls make their escape from the baddies. In another picture, children are viciously strangled by a huge figure vaguely resembling an Aztec god.

For his large-scale works Darger would tape together up to six large sheets of paper. Several of these pieces, such as “Goodness. Didn’t you kids ever see a flower this big?,” offer a carnival of vivid colors — for Darger’s world, when not being threatened by the forces of evil, is an Arcadia of peace, abundant in nature and safe enough for pretty young girls to play in happily.

To save resources, Darger often worked on both sides of his thick sheets of paper. In order to display these double-sided works, the exhibition has them in glass panels placed throughout the museum space, an arrangement that also perhaps alludes to the labyrinthine workings of the artist’s mind.

“Henry Darger: American Innocence” at Laforet Museum runs till May 15; admission ¥800; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. For more information, visit www.lapnet.jp (Japanese only).