In the Realms of the Unreal: Henry Darger’s outsider art comes inside at the Smart Museum

One of the largest epics ever written in the English language was composed entirely in an apartment on Chicago’s North Side. Its author was a quiet man named Henry Darger, whose impressive composition was accompanied by huge collages and watercolor paintings. The epic is entitled “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.” It is 15,145 pages long.

Imagine a world sprung entirely from someone else’s mind. In this case, it is full of drawings of small girls traced from a Sears catalog, stripped out of their commercial sundresses, and given pairs of butterfly wings, large weapons, and, on occasion, a tiny penis. This world was constructed by an artist who silently foraged through commercial detritus to compulsively collect a scrapbook of images from catalogs and advertisements, but also from stories like “Peter Pan” and the Little Orphan Annie comics. What blossomed has become an expansive and complicated universe, with a geography, a social hierarchy, and a distinct aesthetic style. This is the world as made by Henry Darger, but it does not belong exclusively to him. The project expanded from the imagination, of course, but also the world that surrounded the artist.

Darger’s life appeared to be a simple one. After his death in the 1970s, his landlord cleaned out his apartment and found two huge books of collages (each twelve feet long, the books could not actually be opened in the apartment) and the accompanying story, as well as many scrapbooks and carefully curated artistic materials, such as crayons and mixed paint colors with names like “Flesh tone” and “Storm Cloud Purple.” Darger is one of the most notable of outsider artists–someone who received no training in the academy, but produced an extensive body of interesting and dense work. Darger’s mother died when he was four, and he spent his youth first in a Catholic orphanage, and then in a Home for Feeble-Minded Children. Upon escaping the latter, Darger found employment doing menial labor in various hospitals in the Chicago area. He never shared his art with anyone, and lived a solitary life, completely devoted to the fantastic world that he had focused on creating.

The collection of work on display at the Smart Museum includes two of the large, double-sided collages that Darger used to illustrate his epic tale. The pieces have long, descriptive titles (one is called, “Second day Northwest of Jennie Richee are captured by general Federals gland-delinian near Aranbury Run River”). The collages are populated by handsome men and childish girls traced from the world around Darger, who felt his own skills as a draughtsman were so poor that he only appropriated imagery. This appropriation is often very clear and recognizable, with multiple girls in the same pose, and some clearly resembling advertisements that have since been inscribed in our national imagination, like the Morton Salt Girl.

While Darger’s world is complex and fantastical in itself, the art is beautiful, with a muted color palate and characters who seem both foreign and incredibly familiar. Because of the imagery that Darger appropriated, and his vivid imagination, viewing the work can feel like entering someone else’s dream. Seeing the surrounding material gives this dream an even stranger depth.

The current Darger exhibit at the Smart Museum of Art is being show in conjunction with the opening of the Henry Darger Room Collection at Intuit: The Center for Outsider Art. The collection at Intuit will show some of the whimsical items that were found in Darger’s room after his death, and examine the place that served as studio and living space for Darger, who is one of the most successful “outsider” artists of all time.

Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S Greenwood Ave. Through March 16. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm, Thursday 10am-8pm, Saturday-Sunday 11am-5pm. (773) 702-0200. http://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu