At first glance it may look like oddball pop art of the 1960s or 70s.
At a second glance you think it may be a scene of children at play, with each girl looking like a baby doll. A closer look, however, reveals content that crosses back and forth between childlike innocence and violence.
It all comes from the mind of Henry Darger, an outsider artist whose work was only discovered when his landlord went to clean out his apartment after the artist’s death in 1973.
Darger was known by all in his Chicago neighborhood as a hospital janitor. During his lifetime it would be inconceivable that his artwork would ultimately be on display in New York, Paris, Tokyo and now in Central Illinois, where he spent time in a home for “feeble-minded” children and later on a state work farm.
Darger’s initial daring escape from the Lincoln, Illinois children’s home in 1908 may have been part of the inspiration for his lifelong work: a novel totaling more than 15,000 pages, with accompanying artwork, called 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.
The paintings, sometimes spanning 30 feet, have made their way around the world but can still be found at art galleries in his adopted city, most notably at the Intuit Center for Outsider Art, which has a replica of his apartment on display.
A recent PBS documentary tells the story of Darger’s life. The film outlines Darger’s writings and his own narration of his escape from the state work farm in Lincoln — a dramatic tale of escape topped of by his travel on foot from Decatur to Chicago as a teenager.
The story and world Darger created later in a tiny apartment on the North Side of Chicago is about the daughters of Robert Vivian, seven princesses of the Christian nation of Abbieannia who assist a daring rebellion against the child slavery imposed by John Manley and the Glandelinians, which are from another planet. Children take up arms in their own defense and are often slain in battle or viciously tortured by the Glandelinian overlords.
Thanks to the generosity of Darger’s landlord Nathan Lerner, glimpses into this unique artwork have made their way to Central Illinois.
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Krannert Art Museum, the exhibition “Between the Buildings: Art from Chicago” features Darger’s watercolor painting, At Jennie Richee… By Rising Waters Under Their Shelter They are Driven Further.
This work, one of three Dargers that are part of the museum’s permanent collection, is currently on display between a wide variety of other well-known Chicago artists including Ed Paschke, Leon Golub and Gladys Nilsson. The exhibit, titled “Between the Buildings: Art From Chicago,” runs through March 23.
A short drive southwest will yield another Darger sighting at Springfield’s Illinois State Museum, where an untitled Darger painting is part of the exhibit “Sing Muses! History and Allegory in Narrative Art.” It’s part of the Illinois State Museum’s permanent collection, and like the piece in the Krannert, it was a gift from Lerner.
“After Darger’s death and the subsequent discovery of his artwork, Lerner did offer a piece to various regional museums,” said ISM Associate Curator of Art Douglas Stapleton. “We received ours in 1989. We’re pleased to have it in our collection.”
According to the ISM, the artists included in the new “Sing Muses!” exhibition use allegory, metaphor, and poetic license as a critical tool to examine personal, political and social issues, often through the historic lens provided by art history.
Officials said the artists selected use the grand narrative tradition of the past to tell current stories of the struggles to understand humanity’s place in the modern world. And here, Darger’s work is nestled alongside oil paintings and sculpture.
This new exhibit runs through June 3.