Outsider artists often present a pathetic spectacle to the world: forgotten inmates of mental institutions; shuffling, muttering loners; or misfits, like Henry Darger, who spent his workdays as a low-paid janitor and his free time writing and illustrating an unpublishable 15,145-page novel about a vast planet where the evil nation of Glandelinia conducts cruel wars of enslavement against the good children of Angelinia.

Some of the fruits of the lonely furrow Darger plowed are now on display at Tokyo’s Hara Museum of Art. Like many of his ilk, Darger, who was born in 1892, was institutionalized for part of his life and died in impoverished anonymity. He never benefited from artistic training, lacked confidence in his art, and never willingly showed it to anyone. His work was rescued from oblivion by his landlord, Nathan Lerner, a commercial artist who discovered it when terminal illness forced Darger to move to a hospice in 1973.

These circumstances might suggest that his art is collected because of a patronizing sense of pity. But, to an art world that craves originality, outsider art has one advantage over art produced by artists connected to the art world — uniqueness. Along with aesthetic merit and craftsmanship, uniqueness is part of the basic currency of art. It invokes scarcity, and scarcity creates value. With smaller pieces selling for over $25,000, Darger’s works have acquired a reputation for being like nothing else.

The theme of his epic, which goes by the catchy title of the “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,” reveal Darger’s obsessive interest in children. The heroines of the story are seven young sisters — the Vivian girls — who, when depicted naked appear to have penises.

“He was interested in the issue of child slavery because he wanted to depict and emphasize the maltreatment of children,” explains Yoko Nakamura, a curator at the Hara, who is uncomfortable at the suggestion that there is something of the otaku (obsessive) about a grown man creating images of young children, many of them naked. Still, perhaps this explains his evident popularity in Japan, where there have been two earlier exhibitions of Darger’s works. “Westerners want to connect Henry Darger to otaku,” Nakamura says, “But basically Darger’s work is popular in Japan because our culture is open-minded.”

Darger’s methods derived from his lack of confidence. Rather than drawing his images freehand, most of them are assemblages of traced, collaged or photographically enlarged images from popular magazines, coloring books and advertisements that he then colored with watercolor paints. Only where he was unable to find an image he wanted did he venture into freehand drawing, as with his images of the Blengins, fabulous beasts — half-child and half-dragon — that protect the children in his story.

The fact that he borrowed most of his lines and images from a limited source of material, gives his work a consistent and instantly recognizable style. It also means that, besides his imaginative vision, his main artistic input was his sense of color and composition.

Some of the works, especially those featuring young girls and flowers, have a sweet, overpowering charm that dispose you to believe the best about Darger. But alongside examples of saccharine Surrealism are other works that hint at a darker side, scenes showing torture and brutal massacres of children. In our age of overprotective parenting, it is easy to see this as evidence that Darger was some sort of potential pedophile or murderer who fortunately found a release for his dark impulses through his art.

But such an explanation seems inconsistent with the overall tone of the works. In “The History of My Life,” an autobiography found among his papers, Darger seems to emotionally identify himself as a child: “Do you believe it, unlike most children, I hated to see the day come when I will be grown up. I never wanted to. I wished to be young always. I am a grownup now and old lame man, darn it.”

The skill evident in Darger’s work has led the curators to contend that he was not an outsider artist but a normal, outstanding creator. Such a suggestion is insidious, both because it implies that people with emotional or mental problems lack talent, and because it detracts from the naive sincerity that is one of Darger’s chief charms. If he had been just a normal artist, then his pictures of flowers and girls, with the occasional atrocity, would be some great, pointless, ironic joke. It’s the lack of a punch line that makes these absurd paintings truly moving.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.