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Robert Penn

Searching for the Authentic in Henry Darger’s The Realms of the Unreal

Image: Henry Darger, [detail] At Jennie Richee with huge creatures, nd., Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago, IL

           Henry Darger’s multi-volume novel, in excess of 15,000 pages, fully titled 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, is a hefty fairytale of the misadventures of several children. The illustrative components tend to outshine the writings; most see the book as a preliminary work. Though Darger is hardly a household name , the Outsider Art world has absorbed him as one of their own and it is there that the visual materials created for his Realms of the Unreal have made an onerous landfall. He has had considerable success as an exhibiting artist since the near-mythological moment when his landlord (and heir) unwittingly stumbled into his apartment and subsequently gave this work a life that Darger did not live to experience. Besides exhibitions, he has had books and articles written on his life and work, he appears on Natalie Merchant’s 2001 album, Motherland, and even in a poem by John Ashbery. What is it that makes his narrative of gender-bending and graphic violence so appealing?

In many ways, Darger is a subject for study. A first encounter with his Realms of the Unreal is already discomforting. The “Vivian” sisters and other little girls tend to have male genitalia. They frolic nude and are treated like paper dolls, dressed and undressed for playtime. Theirs is a land oddly reminiscent of L. Frank Baum’s Oz. Of course, the differences between Baum’s fantasy and Darger’s world begin to widen: serial murder and merciless holocausts of children, mostly female, all illustrated in obsessive detail litter the Realms. The allure of his work is the intrigue of the “self”: who created this? Biography is important to understanding his work, Darger created his Realms for himself, not for private consumption. Regardless, it now exists for an audience in high art, an audience that recreates his work for their own purposes. Darger’s fantasy of life and death is the theatre of the untutored; the work is seen as “primitive” and raw. It appeals as a thing unfettered by social mores. There is something whole, something humanistic in the work, and it is this public reception of Darger’s private imagery that this thesis will examine.

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         Robert Penn has been the recipient of many grants, scholarships, and awards. He also has a few too many degrees than is necessary. Still, he is very proud of his achievements and would like to share this information.


Thesis Advisor: James Elkins, Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Visual and Critical Studies

Thesis Reader: Kymberly Pinder, Associate Professor, Director of MAAH Program; Art History, Theory, and Criticism

Second Reader: Michael Bonesteel, Instructor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism



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