The latest in a series of Henry Darger exhibitions presented at Intuit examines the gender ambiguity of the artist’s Vivian girls, a septet of pint-sized powerhouse heroines in his magnum opus, “In the Realms of the Unreal,” a fifteen-thousand-plus-page narrative describing a religious war taking place on a planet for which earth serves as the moon. To accompany this narrative, Darger painted several hundred illustrations, many of which span both sides of twelve-feet-long sheets of paper.
The recluse poured decades into the work, creating dizzying tableaus of death and destruction that used collage, photo-reproduction, tracing, and expansive collections of print media from the early to mid-1900s as source material. More than the incredible carnage of his scenes, what seems to intrigue people most is Darger’s representation of gender for the young Vivian girls, who often appear naked in battle and have penises. That these little girls who fight with the ferocity of men are endowed has been a source of speculation, study and controversy since the posthumous unearthing of Darger’s work in the 1970s.
While the urge to filter his images through the politics of the current time—in which discussions of gender fluidity are so prominent—may be understandable, it’s important to consider his time and its influences, including his love of children’s literature, particularly L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” stories, all fourteen volumes of which Darger owned in first editions. In the second volume, the rightful ruler of Oz, in her infancy, is transformed into a boy by a witch. It is, however, this powerless boy’s destiny to become Ozma, the queen of Oz.
Considering also that Darger was likely locked in his own prepubescent emotional state after suffering significant tragedies as a child—first, at four-years old, losing his mother in childbirth to his little sister, who was then adopted, and four years later Darger himself was given over to the state as his father’s health failed—it seems likely that his naiveté informed his art far more than any conscious desire to make statements about gender or sexuality. It’s clear from his autobiography that he didn’t understand rape, explaining it as an act of disembowelment, and in this context it’s easy to imagine that the Vivian girls have penises simply because Darger himself was his only flesh and blood anatomical reference.
Regardless of how we analyze and contextualize his work, Darger rightfully stands as one of the great autodidacts of the twentieth century. The complexities and brutality of “In the Realms of the Unreal” and the Vivian girls entrance and inspire from any perspective, and war and gender will remain timely until peace and equality are the norms. (Damien James)
“Betwixt-and-Between: Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls” shows through September 4 at Intuit, 756 North Milwaukee.