Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls and the thousands of others in his make-believe world exist in contradictory states. Darger positions these little “girls” somewhere between male and female, both biologically and socially. The Vivian Girls’ ambiguous gender speaks broadly, and with rich complexity, to culture’s polarizing constructions of child/adult and male/female. Darger plays with these polarities and creates an extraordinary “child” beyond nature—capable of defeating bloodthirsty Glandelinians.
Curator Leisa Rundquist explains the meaning of Betixt and Betwen and the transcendent nature of the characters.
Visually, this plucky band of seven sisters are appropriated from popular images of childhood from early to mid-20th century American coloring books, comic strips and clothing advertisements. Darger, however, complicates their seemingly cute and innocent bodies with hand-drawn additions of male anatomy—a characteristic of “girls” in Darger’s fictional world that remains unexplained. The Vivian Girls’ intersexual nature and frequent nudity is certainly one of the most significant, yet puzzling, aspects of Darger’s art.
Curator Leisa Rundquist discusses why Darger chose girls as heroes and their appeal to audiences.
This exhibition features major works by Henry Darger that include double-sided, panoramic drawings with watercolor and collage spanning up to eight feet long, Vivian portraits, as well as traced images and resource materials from Intuit’s archives.
Believed to be written between 1910 and the late 1930s and illustrated later, from 1918 into the 1960s,In the Realms of the Unreal is comprised of approximately 15,000 pages and more than 300 watercolor-collages. Its narrative describes, in encyclopedic detail, holy wars between practitioners of child slavery—the godless, satanic nation of Glandelinia—and the benevolent Catholic kingdom ofAngelinia. In this mythic saga, the Vivian Girls, seven young princesses,ages 7 to 10 years old, become the catalyst for insurrection and the subsequent liberation of thousands of child slaves, as hinted by the work’s full title,The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as theRealms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
The product of a troubled youth—he was orphaned and institutionalized in the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois—Darger had a lifelong affinity with children and concern for their protection. He wrote of children's right “to play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night’s season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart.” He and his one known friend, William Schloeder, proposed founding a Children’s Protective Society that would find loving families for orphans. His novel and artwork can be seen both as a myth-making story of children and their struggle and dealing with his own troubled upbringing.
The Vivian Girls have a duality and transcendent nature. They are cute, pure and reverent girls, yet powerful and brave soldiers leading an army of men. Darger wrote “The reason the story runs so much with the little girls are the actual heroes in the warfare is because under most circumstances women are braver than men.”
One conspicuous thing noted about his art is that the girls are transgender, with drawn penises during times of action and violence. They change sex when needed. Darger never wrote about this and we can only speculate why he did this. Even his sexuality is a matter of debate amongst experts. There are many puerile ideas, such as that Darger was child murderer, pedophile and ignorant about basic anatomy However, it is more likely that he was making larger than life figures in the modes of many fantasy and religious figures.
A devout Catholic who attended Mass regularly, Darger infused his story with Catholic symbolism and meaning, including the evocation of Saint Vivia Perpetua(source for the name Vivian Girls), Joan of Arc. As most know, Joan of Arc was a pious teenager who donned armor and led the French Catholic Army into battle during the Hundred Years War.
The name “Vivian” derives from the Latin root vivi-, meaning “to enliven or animate.”In Darger’s epic story, the Vivian Girls come vividly to life, while their passionate virtue and piety vivifies or brings to life others, especially those fighting against evil. Added significance lies in the Latin derivation vivam, literally, “I shall live,”evoking an inextinguishable vitality that characterizes the Vivian Girls’ demeanor and instinctual knack for survival.
Vigor and endurance echo again in the name of Vivia Perpetua—“perpetual life”—the Catholic patron saint of mothers and orphaned children. St. Perpetua, one of seven women in the Eucharist prayer of the Mass, is also distinguished as one of a few female saints who challenged gender hierarchies.
In dangerous and vulnerable situations, Darger’s Vivians and multitudes of other little girls also physically transform into beings that exceed their gender and biological sex. Perhaps more than a coincidence, their Vivian name and their Vivia bodies radiate a subversive and potentially transcendent ambiguity, betwixt and between that of a girl and boy.
Henry Darger was inspired by Shirley Temple and the fashions of her era, according to curator Leisa Rundquist
Darger’s novel is also very much an epic fantasy adventure story, one historian comparing it to a cross between J.R.R. Tolkien and William Blake. Darger’s bookshelf and source material included the Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, cowboy and other adventure books, comic strips, children’s coloring books, Civil War imagery and the child star Shirley Temple. His artwork includes child-loving dragons that sometime take the form of horned girls (another instance of transcendence). He clipped newspaper stories about little girls who did heroic things and remained strong during hardships.
Darger’s artworks include tracings, carbon copies, contact prints and pasted cutouts of magazine pictures and book illustrations. This was in part because he was not confident in his sketching abilities, but it can also be seen as his incorporation of popular media and stories into his art. His work is unique and visionary, but also influenced by the world around him.
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The following is a selection of works from the exhibit (click images to enlarge), along with clips from the curator’s tour of the exhibit. The entire video tour can be viewed at the end.
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The following two videos (Part 1 and 2) show the entire tour
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