ADDRESSES: Home—Chicago, IL. Office—New Art Examiner, 314 West Institute Pl., Chicago, IL 60610.
CAREER: New Art Examiner, Chicago, IL, art critic; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, instructor. Curator of exhibit "The Art of War and Peace," American Visionary Museum, Baltimore, MD, 2001–02. Speaker at conferences.
Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor to Outsider.
SIDELIGHTS: Michael Bonesteel is a Chicago art critic whose Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings studies a man who, for most of his life, lived in isolated poverty. As is often the case, after Darger's death in 1972, his outsider art brought high prices from collectors.
Darger was born in 1892, and when his mother died in childbirth, his newborn sister was given up for adoption. His father died when Darger was twelve years old, and the boy was placed first in a Catholic mission from which he was expelled for masturbating, then in the Lincoln Asylum for Feebleminded Children. He eventually ran away and worked at menial jobs; his only friend, William Schloeder, with whom he founded the Children's Protective Society, died of the flu in 1959. Darger lived on Chicago's north side, in a small apartment that contained neither a kitchen nor a bathroom. The unit was owned by photographer Nathan Lerner, who charged the strange recluse only nominal rent. Darger scavenged in garbage cans, collected string, and attended mass several times a day.
Darger's writing and art were not discovered until Lerner cleaned the man's living space after Darger's death. Darger's obsession with little girls was reflected in the pictures he had cut from magazines, newspapers, and comic books and affixed to walls, doors, and other available spaces. His favorite subjects included the Coppertone Girl, the Dionne quintuplets, and Little Annie Rooney. Lerner also found perhaps the longest novel ever written, Darger's 15,000-page The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as The Realms of the Unreal of the Glandico-Angelinian Wars, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, and its sequel, the 8,500-page Further Adventures in Chicago. The seven Vivian girls are the heroines of the Realms, who, with friendly dragons called the Blengiglomenean Serpents, fight the Glandelinians, a society of fallen Catholics who torture and enslave children. The children prevail, but not before many suffer and die.
Darger's illustrations, which accompany the text, range from watercolors to large murals. They depict the girls, either colorfully dressed, enjoying the large flowers and butterflies he drew, or naked. Some of the girls have horns or penises, while others are shown disemboweled. Some of the scenes include images of Jesus on the cross and the sacred hearts of both Mary and Jesus, suggesting martyrdom. While some consider Darger's work that of a pedophile, others suggest that he is reclaiming, and ultimately protecting, the sister he never knew. His art contains no actual depictions of sex.
In a review posted at InterestingIdeas.com and originally published in Outsider, a reviewer commented that Henry Darger "demonstrates a surprisingly high degree of personal and artistic self-consciousness. Darger may have been queer, he may have been compulsive, but it seems clear that to a great extent he knew what he was about. As Bonesteel contends, the outsider stereotype usually applied to Darger is way wide of the mark. If Darger was truly unusual, it was in the same sense that anyone approaching genius is bound to be."
Darger was a postmodernist who probably never visited a museum. Bonesteel feels that Darger's "use of cut-outs from magazines, comic strips, and coloring books prefigures the same kind of appropriations by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein." Bonesteel includes twelve extracts from Darger's book as well as three poems and excerpts from other writings found in Darger's room, including The History of My Life, the Book of Weather Reports, and Darger's diary.
Reviewing Henry Darger for the Times Literary Supplement, Ian Pindar noted Bonesteel's inclusion of "more than one hundred color illustrations, some of them gatefolds, to do justice to Darger's ambitious friezes." The critic further commented on the book that, "Stylishly designed, it is a much-needed introduction to Darger's inner world."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bonesteel, Michael, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 2000.
New York Times, September 16, 2000, Sarah Boxer, review of Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, pp. B7, B9.
Times Literary Supplement, February 15, 2002, Ian Pindar, review of Henry Darger, p. 19.
Village Voice, October 31, 2000, Darcey Steinke, review of Henry Darger, p. 142.
InterestingIdeas.com, http://www.interestingideas.com/ (February 18, 2002), review of Henry Darger.