Inside the apartment of Henry Darger


Darger Image

The author of 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 spent his now legendarily reclusive life creating weird, mesmerizing, radiant, obsessive and sometimes disturbing works of art and storytelling. His life and creative talent were wonderfully explored in 2004’s In the Realms of the Unreal directed by Jessica Yu. Darger was also the subject of a more recent 2013 biography called Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist written by Jim Elledge.

During his difficult life, Darger spent most of his time at a janitorial job during the day and creating his art, which included over 30,000 manuscript pages in mixed media and collage often depicting strange, violent landscapes inhabited by imaginary creatures and young girls, in his almost entirely solitary spare time. The world was not aware of his singular life’s work until he moved into a nursing home in 1973 and his landlord, photographer Nathan Lerner, uncovered the treasure trove.

Perhaps because he obviously spent so much time there, interest in Darger’s modest Chicago living space has been inevitable among fans of his work.

Darger Table
Darger’s Table.  Photo by Michael Boruch.

Darger Apartment North Wall
The North Wall of Henry Darger’s Room.  Photo by Michael Boruch.

In 2008, Chicago’s Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art opened a permanent exhibit focusing on the contents of Darger’s living and working space.  From the Intuit website:

In spring 2000, Intuit took possession of the contents of artist Henry Darger’s living and working space, which was located at 851 Webster Street in Chicago. Intuit’s Henry Darger Room Collection includes tracings, clippings from newspapers, magazines, comic books, cartoons, children’s books, coloring books, personal documents, and architectural elements, fixtures, and furnishings from Darger’s original room. Darger lived in a one-room apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park until 1973 when he retired to a nursing facility.

In his small room—which doubled as his studio and home for close to 40 years—he worked on a large number of painted and collaged drawings that illustrated the story of the Vivian Girls, created volumes of writings, and collected hundreds of objects (shoes, eyeglasses, balls of string, etc.). The contrast between the intimate scale of the room and the staggering volume of drawings, illustrations, writings, and collections, conveys vital information about Darger’s existence and the work he created.

Opened in 2008, the goal of this permanent exhibit is to create an environment that provides a window onto Darger’s world. The installation will symbolize the stark contrasts that are so vividly portrayed in Darger’s vast and complex oeuvre. Experiencing Darger’s personal environment through the installation will provide an important link to the man who struggled relentlessly throughout his life to give expression to the polarized spectrum of humanity. The archive and material represents a vital resource and the installation will enhance the understanding and appreciation of the art of Henry Darger by providing artists, scholars, and the public access to a unique and innovative archive of study materials.

Intuit Darger Room
From the Henry Darger Room Collection of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art webpage. Photo by John Faier.

The second image on Intuit’s Henry Darger Room webpage is interactive. You can mouse around the room and zoom in on specific pieces.

For another perspective on Darger’s living space, take a look at the silent super-8 film below shot by Coleen Fitzgibbon with assistance from Michael Thompson in the late spring of 1973 shortly after Darger’s work was discovered. The footage was meant to be archival documentation of the spare accommodations that housed Darger and his huge collection of artworks, books, collage materials and art supplies. The footage is itself dark and strange and gives an additional glimpse into the mind and world of the now celebrated artist.

Posted by Jason Schafer