Surely anyone who visited Seeing Stories at the I.D.E.A. Space earlier this year would remember Henry Darger's fantastical artworks. Carefully drawn narratives layered with college-like cutouts and watercolor paint depict a world of children attacked by an army of invaders — called In the Realms of the Unreal — was an epic numbering thousands of pages.
Just as compelling as Darger's work is his highly reclusive life. It was only shortly after he died in 1973 that any of his works were found. Darger's landlord discovered the work as he was cleaning out the tiny apartment Darger had inhabited for decades and kept the numerous journals, folios and manuscripts. All this eventually went to the permanent collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, rarely traveling due to its fragility.
Now that Darger's work is fairly well-established, the museum has opened a new show, The Private Collection of Henry Darger, focused on the collages and muses Darger used to decorate his apartment.
This approach brings into the forefront what many find uncomfortable about Darger, that he was obsessed with children.
In particular, Darger was fixated on the murder of 8-year-old Elsie Paroubek that was a newspaper sensation during the time of her disappearance in 1911. Darger kept a newspaper photograph of the girl and was horrified when he lost it years later. The loss turned out to be the spark of inspiration for Realms.
While many sound the molester alarm, American Folk Art Museum curator Brooke Davis Anderson, disagrees. In a quote from our March interview she says, “More than his obsession with that one girl I think was his burning desire to be a parent and adopt a child. Much of his autobiography is an autobiography full of regret and his great regret, at least as he writes it, is that he was never able to be a parent.”
Darger, who never married, had tried to adopt a child but was turned down numerous times. But that didn't stop him from dreaming and drawing. A New York Times review, gallantly posted on the museum's website, can't get past the creepiness of Darger's personal life, writing:
However impressive his works may be aesthetically — he was about as consummate an artist as ever there was — the thrill would be less if we didn’t sense in them a mind desperately struggling to keep itself intact.
And with a work like this one below, it's hard to disagree.
Read the full review here:
A sense of voyeurism comes inherently with any "private" or "intimate" outlet, be it an art show, biography or documentary. The spectator slot is even more pronounced in the presence of strife (Darger had a mental disability, no doubt), questioning our motives to probe and look. This show — from where I stand having not seen it in person — seems to side-step this altogether with the foundation that this exhibit is about a "private collection" of artwork. Whether this conceit works or not is impossible to tell without being there to see it, but is already a success by way of the discussion.