Galerie St. Etienne
From January 15 through March 13, 2004, the Galerie St. Etienne will present an in-depth examination of renowned "outsider" artist Henry Darger (1892-1973). Countering the emphasis on sordid biographical detail that has sometimes characterized approaches to Darger’s achievement, HENRY DARGER: Art and Myth is the first exhibition ever to propose a rough dating for the works and to present them in developmental sequence. Loans from New York’s American Folk Art Museum provide additional insights into the artist’s creative methodology. Darger will also be featured prominently in the Galerie St. Etienne's booth at the Outsider Art Fair (to be held at the Puck Building in New York City from January 23 to 25).
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Henry Darger is in many respects the prototypical "outsider" artist. A recluse who shuttled between meager lodgings in a Chicago rooming house and menial jobs at local hospitals, he secretly produced an immense novel and several hundred watercolors documenting a fictional war between the supremely good, Catholic nation of Abbiennia and its evil enemy, atheistic Glandelinia. The main characters in both the written and the pictorial narratives are little girls: the seven angelic Vivian sisters and masses of enslaved children, whose rebellion from their Glandelinian oppressors has triggered the war. Adding an extra touch of quirkiness to the watercolors, the children are frequently "nuded" (Darger’s term) and endowed with little penises, regardless of gender.
Despite the continuity of content that exists between Darger’s novel and his watercolors, there are significant differences between the two bodies of work. Not only does the art evidence a sense of structure and compositional mastery lacking in the writings, but the images reveal considerable stylistic development over time. Whereas Darger may have created his first artworks - mainly portraits of single subjects such as children and the monsters he called Blengins - while writing the novel, his larger pictures were probably done later, between the mid 1930s and the mid 1960s. The earliest narrative artworks were relatively small, 19 x 24 inches sheets depicting simple scenes. Gradually, however, the artist began pasting these together into long, scroll-like panoramas. Darger’s primary sources were children’s coloring books, advertisements and comic strips, which he traced into his work using carbon paper. In the mid 1940s, he began having his source material photographically enlarged, and this enabled him to produce watercolors up to 125 inches in length.
Through cumulative experience, Darger taught himself to organize extremely complex subjects over an enormous pictorial field. In his use of printed source material, he also created an unwitting commentary on twentieth-century popular culture. The contrast between the unbelievably adorable Vivian girls and their violent exploits mirrors a similar split between good and evil impulses both within the artist himself and in society at large. It is the universality of Darger’s subject matter that accounts for his enduring appeal and contemporary relevance.
HENRY DARGER: Art and Myth is documented by a comprehensive checklist, which is available by mail free of charge upon request or can be downloaded from the gallery’s web site www.gseart.com.