Friday, October 22, 2010

Andrew Edlin Gallery: Henry Darger

On view at the Andrew Eldin Gallery is a selection of Henry Darger (1892-1973) watercolors and collages, created as illustrations for his epic unpublished novel, “The Story of the Vivian Girls”. The untitled, undated images narrate the conflict between the Vivian Girls, seven heroic adventure-seeking sisters, and the Glandelinian soldiers, who enslave children. Self-trained, Darger created his compositions by repeatedly tracing and modifying pictures clipped from newspapers.

The majority of works on display are wide, scroll-shaped watercolors (many over 100” long), some of which are double-sided and hang in the center of the gallery. The images present a strange melding of delightful whimsy with violent toughness. Shirley Temple-esque girls with ringlets and dimples become pint-size Amazons in the face of injustice. Girls sprouting ram horns or butterfly wings populate a world where flowers grow into the clouds. Little girls with male genitalia staunchly defend enslaved children by waging bloody battle with rifles against grown men soldiers. Bright colors and repetition emphasize the artist’s fantastical scenarios.

There is also a set of small collages, portraits of generals from the story, and Volume I of Darger’s novel (an in-gallery computer shows page scans). The collages appear to be reference material for the more complex illustrations. Each consists of many paperdoll-like girls collaged around a giant central figure customized with a red uniform painted by Darger. His incorporation of inconsistently-sized figures as well as his use of dark paper as a ground is a striking departure from the other works displayed. It is possible these are character studies intended to develop his characters individual looks. They have a ghostly carefree quality—the giggling little girl heads from photographs are pasted onto simply-rendered, costumed bodies and consequently feel suspended in an unreality.

Much like cartoonist Robert Crumb, Darger, out of personal frustrations and an inability to connect with people, began creating his own. Unlike Crumb, however, Darger never intended his work for public consumption. There is a conflict between his intent—to create a personal manifestation of the characters in his imagination—and the posthumous exposure of his work. As enchanting as the images are, it feels exploitative for such intensely private work to be displayed. The pieces carry a sense of imperilment—the delicate materials are already eroding and only tiny shreds of information about their creation survive. The benefit of bringing this luminous world into the open is protection against its loss or destruction.


  1. Your description of the characters from the story illustrated by Darger would make an interesting opening for the review that could effectively get readers’ attention. The way in which the work was hung in the gallery made me feel as though I was in the story (or at least really focus on the details of the work), specifically when walking between the center hung illustrations. I appreciate your description of the images as it allows the reader to have a sense of the characters and the artist’s style yet still uncover the story for themselves.

  2. I appreciate how you give a biographical inference showing the artist as a kind of hermetic, antisocial being because the work, like you said, feels deeply personal. Walking around the gallery felt like spying into someone's intimate fantasy land. Two minor ideas I will critique are 1. the sentence "Bright colors and repetition emphasize the artist's fantastical scenarios." This sentence is a bit vague, which could be fixed by defining what the bright colors and repetition are in the works. 2. As a reader, I was left wondering where the rest of Darger's work is and how complete the exhibit actually is. Also, the reference to Crumb could be replaced with a description of what you know about the artist's antisocial activities versus simply providing a parallel.