Henry Darger: Mental illness and outsider art

9 Mins read

In April 1973, alone, penniless and seemingly forgotten, an 81-year-old man passed away in a home for the elderly in Chicago, Illinois.

Not much was known about the man who collected copious amounts of trash and spoke in a multitude of voices behind the door of his rented room, but soon after his death, Henry Darger would become one of the most well known and celebrated outsider artists of the 20th century. 

He had spent his life working as a hospital janitor, by all accounts a shy, reclusive and eccentric character who despite his oddities, was liked by those who knew him.

In the months before his death, however, Darger’s landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner discovered a series of densely filled volumes, scrapbooks, sheets, journals and ledgers, much of which detailed a complex fantasy novel on which Darger had worked since 1910, immersing himself in a world of warfare, child slavery and child-like freedom. 

In the Realms of the Unreal, or to give its full name: 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, has since become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art, and has been exhibited worldwide following Darger’s death.

Outsider art is defined as art created by individuals who are self-taught, with little or no contact with the mainstream art world. Darger’s inspirations throughout the saga lay in his own childhood, which was beset by loss and hardship, his desire to protect children, both in his work and real-life displayed the level in which he blurred the lines between the reality in which he lived and that of his creation. 


A dilapidated staircase from above. This is an abandoned asylum.

Henry Darger spent his childhood in Victorian orphanages and asylums, renowned for their lack of institutional care [Flickr:Shando]

Henry Darger created his own imaginary universe, complete with its own history, languages, nations, races, and geography. He envisaged a host of characters, some of them drawn from real life, along with their backstories, relationships and beliefs.

He created vast pages of illustrations, collages and paintings depicting the events of In the Realms of the Unreal, and described a war between freed child slaves and the fictional race of the Glandelinians. In modern psychology, the term Paracosm has been used to describe such behaviour, in which the subject has such an intense and entwined relationship with their creation. 

“We never conversed or had a dialogue. As a landlady I did take care of his needs when he needed me, as did Nathan,” Kiyoko says about Darger. “He had no close friends. The only one we know of that he called a friend was a man called William Schloeder, but aside from William, he had no one else.”

Aside from menial hospital work, Darger spent his time alone, collecting items from around the city from refuse bins and pavements. Many of the items he hoarded such as photographs, newspaper clippings and children’s models would be used as inspiration and materials for Realms of The Unreal.

“I saw the room,” Kiyoko recalls. “From the door to where he worked on a long table, there was only a one-foot wide passageway, the rest of the room was covered with stuff. It had never been cleaned; he didn’t cook or eat in that room, so there were no bugs, rotten food or smells.”

Due to his ailing health, Kiyoko helped Darger with tasks such as changing lightbulbs, giving her brief and privileged access to his room. Even as landlords, Kiyoko’s husband Nathan insisted that they leave Henry be, saying; “He doesn’t hurt anybody, so just leave him alone.”

Despite often being in contact with Darger, Kiyoko and her husband rarely found Darger willing to speak with them. “We never conversed, or had a dialogue,” says Kiyoko. “He never responded to us, but he loved our dog. Aside from that, he didn’t really engage if you spoke to him; he would respond with something else most of the time, never looking into your eyes, and he would always talk about the weather.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“There is one really important thing I must write which I have forgotten.”
Henry Darger[/pullquote]It has been theorised that Darger suffered from mental health problems or a social disorder which inhibited his interaction with those around him. It is possible that with more efficient and structured mental healthcare and awareness, Henry Darger may have found the pressures of his life easier to bear.

Throughout the 20th century, disorders such as Asperger Syndrome and Autism were not recognised or studied, and institutional care facilities were either non-existent or harsh and barbaric relics from the 19th century.

Details of Darger’s life such as his repetitive behaviour, fixation on certain objects, and inhibited ability or desire to interact with those around him bear striking similarities to the diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, a disorder that may have been exacerbated by the trauma he likely suffered from an early age.

A relatively recent psychological diagnosis which bears striking parallels to Darger’s life and work is that of maladaptive daydreaming, in which the subject becomes fully immersed in an imaginary world or reality, leading to detachment from society, and an inability to function on an emotional and social level.

The creation of imaginary worlds and realities, along with excessive daydreaming and detachment forms society can be an indicator of emotional stress, abuse or lack of stimuli in both childhood and adult life. Darger had certainly encountered loss and trauma in his childhood.

An exterior photograph of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, which houses Darger's work/

The American Folk Art Museum in New York City currently houses Darger’s work [Flickr:Wally Gobetz]

To understand the context and causality behind Darger’s work, we spoke with Darger scholar and outsider art expert Michael Bonesteel who has written, and lectured on the works of Darger since discovering his work during his time at the Madison Art Centre in Wisconsin.

“In my opinion is his artistic accomplishments transcend the definitions of outsider art and, for that matter, art itself,” Bonesteel says: “He was world-building full time for decades and the separation between his real life and the Realms of the Unreal is fluid. He entered into his novel as many different characters and played roles that reflected his real-world concerns.

“I have long held the notion that Darger day-dreamed about the Realms while doing his day jobs and worked on it at night. His day-dreaming may have started as early as his teenage years at the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children — or even before that. In one way or another, I believe he probably spent more time immersed in the Realms than in the ‘real’ world.”

At the age of four his mother passed away during childbirth, leaving young Henry in the care of his father, Henry Darger Senior. By 1900, his father could no longer care for him after becoming lame, and so Darger Junior was placed in the care of an orphanage in Chicago.

By the age of 12, Darger had been sent to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, with the reason stated as ‘self-abuse,’ a euphemism for masturbation. By all accounts, Darger was an exceptionally intelligent child, but also exhibited unusual behaviours, such as odd noises and disruptive habits. It was during his years living at the asylum that Darger is suspected to have been the victim of sexual and physical abuse, although this has never been confirmed.

Abuse and mistreatment was rife in institutes like these during the early 20th century, with the Lincoln Asylum having a particularly notorious reputation, as states Bonesteel: “It is highly likely, given statistics regarding institutional upbringing in the early 20th century, that he was physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused. There is no proof that exists of this, however, but the loss of his mother and sister at the age of four, and the abandonment by his father at the age of twelve are enough in themselves to account for the trauma he experienced.”

An image of an art gallery. Paintings line the walls, there are no people present.

Since his death, Henry Darger has become a revered outsider artist, with his work exhibited worldwide [Flickr:Soomness]

Following his father’s death when Darger was 17, be began a series of attempts to escape, the third attempt being successful and resulting in him returning to Chicago, where he found employment over the following years as a hospital janitor and dishwasher.

Over the next 50 years of his life, Darger lived in the same neighbourhood of Chicago, aside from a brief period in which he was drafted into the United States Army in 1917, during World War One.

He became a reclusive and lonely individual, thought to be a traumatised and shell-shocked war veteran by his landlord in the 1930s, police captain Walter Gehr.

“Captain Gehr was not alarmed by the sometimes gruesome images and simply thought Darger was shell-shocked from the war.” Bonesteel states. “After all, that would explain why he always wore the same old army coat year after year; why he was a reclusive loner; and why he didn’t like Mary Catherine [Gehr’s daughter] or her brother snooping around in his room and touching his things.”

An intensely private individual, Darger did not share details of his writings or artwork with anyone whilst he was alive, the only glimpses of his work were in clandestine excursions to his room by Gehr’s children or brief interactions inside Darger’s room between him and his landlord and neighbours.

He is only known to have had one close friend, a man by the name of William Schloeder, who Darger wrote into his work as a fictional character, but even William may not have been privy to the details of Realms of The Unreal.

“It has long been my suspicion that Darger may have read passages from his Realms novel to his only close friend William Schloeder, but this is only conjecture,” Bonesteel claims. “It seems unlikely that Darger would have shared his writings with the world by the end of his life.

“My theory is that he was rather ashamed of threatening God over the loss of his manuscripts and photographs of Elsie Paroubek [a child murder victim whom Darger immortalised in his work], as well as becoming angry about not being able to adopt a child, and because of these losses, extending the carnage in his Realms over a period of decades.

“There is no better explanation than this for the fact that in his semi-autobiographical History of My Life he never once mentions writing the Realms — even though it occupied his life for more than a quarter of a century.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“I hated to see the day come when I will be grown up. I never wanted to.”
Henry Darger[/pullquote]The storyline and subject matter of Realms of The Unreal points to trauma within his own life playing a key role in its development and influence. The graphic nature of some imagery, such as executions, torture and war scenes depict the torture within the story, but also within himself.

“His art has been universally praised, although his more disturbing images of tortured, strangled and disemboweled children have been condemned for their graphic violence,” says Bonesteel.

The development of Realms of The Unreal, especially its characters and storyline changed dramatically with the ebb and flow of his own emotional state, and anger with his own reality. For Darger, religion was a key component of his life, and so when he found his faith tested, the fates of his characters often hung in the balance, before his distress abated and calm returned to the pages of Realms of The Unreal.

A close up image of an example of Darger's work. His work made heavy use of children, in this image there are three.

Henry Darger featured children throughout his work. This has led to criticism and allegations of sexual undertones. [Flickr:Drew Anderson]

There is a revealing series of “Prediction and Threat” entries that first appear in a personal journal and are then reproduced twice in the Realms novel. Darger’s proclamation is unequivocal and uncompromising when he writes about the fate of the Christians in his magnum opus:

“No mercy will be shone [sic]. Am an enemy against the christian cause, and desire with all my heart to see to it that their armies are crushed, and that I will see to the winning of the war for the Glandelinians. Results of too many unjust trials. Will not bear them under any conditions even at the risk of losing my soul or causing the loss of many others and vengeance will be shown if further trials continues. God is too hard to me. I will not bear it any longer for no one.” [Realms of the Unreal, Volume I, p. 301].”

Darger’s work has now been exhibited worldwide, with many scholars citing him as one of the greatest examples of outsider art. His work is heavily licensed and sparsely available outside of temporary exhibits.

Like Darger, many other outsider artists also suffered from abuse, trauma or mental health disorders throughout their lives. Individuals such as Willem Van Genk, and Pierre Vuitton both incorporated elements of their own past, trauma and frustration with the world around them into their work, albeit without the seclusion and reclusiveness that kept Darger’s work hidden for so many years.

[pullquote align=”right”]“I am alone”
Henry Darger[/pullquote]With an increased awareness about mental health in society, individuals such as Darger now find themselves able to flourish within the creative arts, and with effective support. Even those suffering from the most severe cases of social disorders can find levels of comfort and stability within their lives; a far cry from the horrific conditions of asylums and sanatoriums of the past.

Events such as World Mental Health Day are supported through social media, TV and social events, whilst workplace support and community outreach are of rising importance in many countries worldwide.

There is no way to say whether Darger’s work would have truly changed had he had effective institutional support, nor whether he would have even wanted support.

It is likely that his childhood trauma was scarred too deeply into his mind to allow him to escape beyond the pages of Realms of The Unreal for any length of time.

His life was a harsh and lonely one, filled with pain, suffering and neglect. For now and the future, however, Henry Darger will be remembered and celebrated as an outsider art great, never again allowed to fade into obscurity. 





Featured image by Paul Comstock via Flickr CC

Edited by Sanja Vedel, Emil Brierley & Mischa Manser.

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