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Author Michael Bonesteel vividly remembers the first time he came across the work of Henry Darger, the reclusive, emotionally disturbed hospital worker whose fantastically bizarre art and writings were discovered by his Lincoln Park landlord more than a quarter century ago.

It was around 1978, and Bonesteel, then a poet, performance artist, and budding art critic, was working as publicity director for the Madison Art Center when the exhibition catalog for “Realms of the Unreal: The Work of Henry Darger” came across his desk. The exhibit, by then closed, had been staged at the Hyde Park Art Center in fall 1977 as the first public showing of Darger’s epic artworks–colorful scenes of dragons, battlefields, and dozens upon dozens of little girls. In some scenes the girls were frolicking in idyllic gardens; in others they were being eviscerated or hung by male soldiers. Often they were naked, sporting penises.

But the drawings, some of them nine feet long and double sided, were merely illustrations for Darger’s 15,145-page magnum opus, 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. The book recounts a war between the evil, child-enslaving nation of Glandelinia and the virtuous Catholic nation of Abbieannia. The Abbieannians are ultimately led to triumph by the seven heroic Vivian sisters, along with the help of characters like Captain Henry Darger and dragonlike creatures called Blengiglomenean serpents (or “blengins,” for short). Darger’s landlord, the well-known photographer and designer Nathan Lerner, and his neighbor David Berglund had discovered the 15 illustrated volumes while cleaning out Darger’s room after he moved to a nursing home in the early 70s. Recognizing the drawings’ worth, Lerner saved them, and a few years later they made their public debut in Hyde Park.

Bonesteel hadn’t seen the Hyde Park show, and the catalog was a cheaply produced newsprint affair, featuring black-and-white reproductions of Darger’s vibrant images and typewritten excerpts from the Realms inside the front and back covers. Nevertheless, he says, it changed his life forever. “I just became riveted, blown away. There was something very mysterious and compelling about the whole story–the art, his life, the reproductions. There was a mythological quality to it–the fact he had created this entire story that took place in another world. I’d always been interested in fantasy worlds, and how people create those things. He created this complete, intact history with wars, and some strange sexuality going on as well….It just struck a lot of chords.”

It wasn’t until the following year that Bonesteel saw Darger’s works for the first time, at a Museum of Contemporary Art show called “Outsider Art in Chicago” that included the work of six Chicago artists. He describes the experience in near-religious terms: it was as if he were standing in a cathedral, feeling a connection to the “mystical exaltation of saints” in a way he never had (but always thought he was supposed to) as an altar boy.

“The more I look at it, I really identified with him in many ways,” says Bonesteel, now an editor with Pioneer Press. “There was a strong Roman Catholic element in his work, and I was brought up Roman Catholic. He was an only child; I was an only child. We were born the same month. He started with literature and segued into art, and I did the same thing–I was a writer and I was eventually illustrating my own books of poetry with collage kind of elements the same way he was.” Darger was placed in an orphanage at a young age, after his mother died in childbirth; Bonesteel’s mother and aunt both lived in an orphanage as young children, Bonesteel says. “I didn’t think about all this at the time. It was just a natural attraction on my part.”

More than two decades later, Bonesteel’s attraction has culminated in Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings. The 256-page book includes an introductory essay by Bonesteel, some 125 reproductions of Darger’s drawings and collage paintings, and 18 excerpts from his writings–mostly from the Realms (including hymns and songs by Darger), but also from the artist’s 5,084-page autobiography, his extensive weather journals, and his diary. Bonesteel’s is the first comprehensive survey of the artist’s life and work to be published in this country. (A book on Darger by psychiatric-art scholar John M. MacGregor came out in 1996 in French; he’s still trying to find a publisher for his more expansive monograph on the artist.)

A full-length book on Darger couldn’t have appeared at a more auspicious time: after years of quiet appreciation, especially among Chicago’s long-standing legion of outsider-art aficionados, Darger is now riding a surge of recognition. In the early 80s his work was included in several important European exhibitions, and selected drawings were sold at Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago and New York. But Darger wasn’t immediately seen as a major artist, Bonesteel says, in part because of the art world’s prejudice against untrained artists. Darger’s graphic scenes of carnage involving hermaphrodite girls certainly didn’t help matters. But the word spread as more people saw the work, and as outsider art became more popular among mainstream collectors.

Darger’s status really began to soar in the late 90s. A retrospective titled “Henry Darger: The Unreality of Being,” organized by Stephen Prokopoff, director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, opened there in 1996 and traveled to the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, the Chicago Cultural Center, and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Art Center. (All of the works were loaned by Nathan Lerner and his wife, Kiyoko; since Lerner’s death in 1997, Kiyoko Lerner has controlled the Darger materials.) The show drew national press attention from critics enraptured by Darger’s sense of composition, collage, and color; Arthur Danto, writing in the Nation, called Darger a “genius of stammering achievement.” His prices escalated along with his fame; Carl Hammer Gallery sells the double-sided scrolls for up to $80,000.

Darger’s belated acclaim was no surprise to Bonesteel. “Why shouldn’t everybody be as knocked out as I am about this guy? I’ve been wondering for years why people didn’t look at his stuff and, instead of coming up with points of view like ‘Oh, he’s a pedophile’ or ‘Oh, he’s a weirdo,’ see the other side of him–see what an incredible artist he is. I don’t think he was a pedophile, I don’t think there’s any evidence that he ever was. However, I can see why people would jump to that conclusion.”

Bonesteel’s introductory essay, “Henry Darger: Author, Artist, Sorry Saint, Protector of Children,” is part biographical, part critical. It explains–or attempts to explain–how Darger’s tortured childhood, profound religious faith, and compulsive drive to collect things are reflected in his art.

Darger was born in 1892 in Chicago–though as an adult he liked to claim he was from Sao Paulo, Brazil–and lived with his parents near Adams and Desplaines. When he was three, his mother died giving birth to his sister, who was put up for adoption. By the time he was eight, his crippled father could no longer care for him and he was placed in an orphanage and then a Catholic boys’ home; in 1905 he was admitted to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois, where by his account he witnessed adults cruelly mistreating children. He made friends there, and even harbored a crush on a girl. After several tries, the 16-year-old Darger finally succeeded in escaping the asylum, moving back to Chicago to live with his godmother.

For his entire adult life Darger worked at a series of Catholic hospitals washing dishes, cleaning latrines, and rolling bandages–an employment history interrupted only in 1917, when he was drafted into the army. (He was quickly discharged because of eye trouble.) It was also in 1917 that he attempted to adopt a child, but was apparently refused. Shortly thereafter, Darger and his only known friend, Whilliam Schloeder, with whom he liked to visit the Riverview Amusement Park, formed a club called the Children’s Protective Society; they were the sole members. Schloeder moved away in the 1920s, and in 1931 Darger settled into the upstairs room at 851 W. Webster, transforming it into a shrine to his extraordinary inner life.

Lerner–who inherited Darger when he bought the building in 1955–recalled a short, balding, shambling figure who dressed in secondhand clothes and rarely talked to anyone (except himself). Darger attended mass several times a day, ate at the same restaurant every morning, and tended to rummage through public trash cans, obsessively collecting things like empty bottles and pieces of string. He also hoarded newspapers, magazines, and children’s coloring books and comics. A poor draftsman, Darger traced or cut-and-pasted images from sources like these onto cheap construction paper, often after having them photographically enlarged at a Lincoln Park drugstore.

When he became too lame to climb the stairs, Lerner signed him into a Catholic-run convalescent home; when Lerner asked him what he wanted done with his possessions, Darger reportedly replied, “It’s all yours.” He died on April 13, 1973, the day after his 81st birthday, and was buried in the paupers’ section of All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines.

Although he minored in psychology, Bonesteel mostly refrains from a clinical reading of Darger’s work. He says he leaves the psychoanalytical point of view up to scholars like MacGregor, who has written that he found in Darger “a potential for mass murder” and has been quoted as saying that Darger had the mind of a “serial killer.”

Bonesteel doesn’t buy that theory, but he and MacGregor do agree that it was the real-life abduction and murder of a five-year-old Chicago girl in 1911 that pushed Darger over the edge. Darger cherished a newspaper photograph he had clipped of the girl, Elsie Paroubek, and at some point he lost the clipping. He wrote of searching for the photo in libraries and praying to God for its return, but after more than a year he still couldn’t locate it. This “personal crisis,” as Bonesteel calls it, triggered the child-slave war at the heart of the Realms. Not only was Elsie the model for martyred rebel leader Annie Aronburg; her ghostly presence haunts the entire saga. (MacGregor actually investigated whether Darger himself could have been the girl’s killer. No evidence has ever been found to confirm that hypothesis.)

“I don’t think there’s a question he was traumatized as a child and that he had some big-time emotional problems,” says Bonesteel. “I don’t think he was schizophrenic; I don’t think he was paranoid. I think he was a borderline personality of some kind. But he functioned very well in the world. I don’t think that whatever his problems were, they prohibited him from making a pretty full life for himself. I think his art is what did keep him together. If he didn’t have that, he probably would not have done so well in the world.”

In his essay, Bonesteel grapples with the problem of trying to classify what he calls Darger’s “astounding and perplexing contribution to modern art and literature.” While Darger was a “voracious reader,” heavily influenced by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Wizard of Oz books, and Dickens as well as war epics and pulp novels, it’s doubtful he ever set foot in a museum or gallery. But is he an outsider or not? Bonesteel compares Darger to other hard-to-categorize artists like William Blake, Edvard Munch, and Joseph Cornell–the last of whom was, like Darger, untrained, obsessed with 19th-century history, sexually stunted, and a creator of innovative collages using found imagery. “And yet,” Bonesteel writes, “Cornell is considered one of the outstanding figures of mainstream art in the 20th century, while Darger is relegated to the world of art brut.”

Bonesteel considers Darger “an original creative genius in the same way Picasso was, and I’m not exaggerating. He transcends categories. Calling Darger an outsider artist, and just an outsider, is like calling Picasso a cubist, and just a cubist–you couldn’t pigeonhole him as one type of artist. I think Darger’s the same way. There are aspects about him that are outsiderlike, but by restricting your definition to that you leave out all kinds of other things that contradict the whole outsider paradigm….You can look at him as a kind of proto-pop appropriator–although postmodern artists have an irony to their work that he didn’t; he’s really more of a modernist. You could view him as a Catholic artist.”

Bonesteel, 53, was born in Chicago, raised in Palatine, and received a bachelor’s degree in English literature and creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During college he began reading his poetry in public, backed by jazz musicians. Performing at art venues led to jobs at galleries. “I was basically interested in being a writer–I didn’t want to teach–and it seemed like art publications paid the most money. I fell into it pretty naturally.” He began writing criticism for the Chicago-based New Art Examiner in the late 70s, then moved to the city in 1980 when the magazine, then expanding nationally, hired him as a full-time bureau chief. Bonesteel left the Examiner in 1982, took a part-time job in the Park Ridge Pioneer Press office, and freelanced for the Reader and as the Chicago correspondent for Art in America.

After a few years of trying, he finally persuaded his editor at AIA to let him write a piece on Darger and two other outsider artists. The full-color feature “Chicago Originals” appeared in the February 1985 issue and focused on the work of Joseph Yoakum, Lee Godie, and Darger. “They liked it a lot,” Bonesteel says. “They liked my work, but they really flipped after I’d done that. Darger had never been written about in a national way before.”

Bonesteel’s job at Pioneer Press gradually became full-time: he was writing features as well as art, theater, and film criticism and a movie-video column; in 1995 he was promoted to entertainment editor. Meanwhile, he wrote exhibit catalogs for local artists, both trained and untrained, and learned more and more about outsider work. In 1993 he curated a retrospective of Godie’s works for the Cultural Center; the exhibit closed two months before the eccentric bag lady’s death and led to an article in Raw Vision magazine. Bonesteel is also a board member of the Chicago-based group Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, and regularly contributes to its publication the Outsider. Founded in 1991, Intuit organizes exhibits, lectures, and tours and generally tries to raise awareness of outsider art from its facility at 756 N. Milwaukee; on Thursday, January 18, at 8 PM, Bonesteel will give a lecture there on his book.

On Saturday and Sunday, February 3 and 4, Bonesteel will appear at the MCA, which is also the venue for an experimental-theater work titled Jennie Richee, inspired by Darger’s life and named after a battlefield in the Realms. Bonesteel will moderate a panel discussion by the show’s creators at 2 PM Saturday; at 2 PM Sunday he’ll talk about his book. Jennie Richee runs February 1-4.

Bonesteel always had a notion of putting together a book on Darger, but it was a chain of serendipitous events that finally made it happen. Planning to write a book on Chicago outsider artists, Bonesteel spent much of 1997 doing research in Darger’s room, which until last spring had been preserved pretty much intact except for the Realms: still in place were Darger’s typewriters, manuscripts, worktable, scrapbooks, and portraits of little girls and Catholic saints. At the same time Kiyoko Lerner, who still owned the building, was approached by Rizzoli, the New York-based art-book publisher.

“Kiyoko asked me, ‘Do you know anybody who might be interested in doing a book on Darger?'” Bonesteel recalls. “She had asked Stephen Prokopoff, and he wasn’t interested. She may have approached a couple other people. I said, ‘Well, hell, I’d love to do it myself.’ She said, ‘You would?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I really would.’ She said, ‘I’ll have you get in touch with the person I’m talking to at Rizzoli.'”

That person turned out to be Christopher Lyon, a onetime Chicago art writer who had also done the lighting for a performance of Bonesteel’s in 1981. The two friends had lost track of each another. “It fell right into my lap,” Bonesteel says. “We had a very nice relationship and always worked well together. I couldn’t have been happier.” Their rapport was reignited while working on the Darger book. “We threw ideas back and forth, and he was really helpful.”

Darger’s visual and literary legacy largely rests on Realms of the Unreal, and that’s where most of the book’s selected writings have been taken from. Darger began writing the book (which he typed, single-spaced, on legal paper) around 1912, and probably finished it in the early 1930s; he spent the next three decades creating the illustrations. Patterned after Civil War and World War I events, battles are often described in encyclopedic detail and go on for hundreds of pages. It took Bonesteel six months just to skim the book; he actually turned every page, reading the sections he thought would give him the best understanding of the drawings.

“A person just looking at the visual work really wouldn’t understand why, what, or who,” says Bonesteel. “Who are these people? Why are there children? Why do the children look different in some places? Why are there battles here, a fairyland paradise there? Why the eviscerations?…All those questions are answered in the Realms.”

He realized that excerpting Darger would be a formidable task, but he wanted to have a balance of written and visual material, because few people have ever read more than a “few token passages” of Darger’s work. He chose to organize his selections by highlighting themes and characters–thunderstorms, forest fires, war atrocities, the Vivian girls, child slaves, and so on. “I wanted to give, in a very very abridged way, a taste of Darger in all his different aspects….There are fairly long excerpts that I chose, and I edited them in such a way that they’d be a little more readable and concise, but not in a way you’d lose the flavor of his writing or disrupt things.”

For his next project, Bonesteel hopes to publish a longer version of the Realms–still abridged, but book length. He already has a head start, and a pile of photocopies and meticulous notes. “Let’s face it–abridgment isn’t really even the right word,” he says. “It’s like excerpts that, again, will give you a flavor of what’s going on, but a bit more thoroughly than what I’ve done in this book.”

Did Darger ever intend his work to be seen, read, and appreciated? It’s hard to say, but Bonesteel doesn’t dismiss the possibility. “If you’re a writer, how can you write and not have an audience in mind, even if it’s an imaginary audience?” He points out that Darger once sent a lyric to a song publisher; in a return letter, the firm indicated it needed music to go along with the words. Darger never followed up.

“Why he didn’t try to publish anything else we’ll never know,” says Bonesteel. Of course, such a private person “might be horrified to learn that the eyes of the world were privy to his innermost thoughts and fantasies.” But Bonesteel argues that the very act of writing an autobiography presumes he had readers in mind. “I think the notoriety would be something he would value. It would be a recognition of his talents….I think, more than anything else in the whole world, he wanted to be loved and accepted.”

Over the years, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner sold or donated a selection of Darger’s artworks–mostly the huge scrolls–to museums. The Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne has more than 20 pieces, while the Art Institute of Chicago, the MCA, and the Milwaukee Art Museum each have several. Nathan Lerner had hoped that a local institution could acquire a “core collection” and keep it permanently displayed; but the issue was left unresolved at the time of his death. This past fall, Kiyoko sold and donated 22 paintings to the Museum of American Folk Art (adding to the four already owned), along with Darger’s hand-bound manuscripts and source materials. The collection, valued at more than $2 million, will be housed in the museum’s new building on 53rd Street in New York, scheduled to open next summer. Kiyoko Lerner still owns a large body of work.

“I’m thrilled that somebody’s finally going to take care of it,” says Bonesteel. “I’m sad it’s left Chicago. I’m sad that the institutions here didn’t feel it was important enough, or could not come to whatever sort of agreements [were needed] to purchase these pieces. But our institutions have their own criteria. We don’t have a Museum of American Folk Art–Intuit is the closest thing we’ve got devoted solely to this kind of work. So for other institutions to put that much value on Darger may be naive on everybody’s part. I do hope that there’s still a chance for these institutions to get more Dargers and to keep them here. Because I really think that he’s not just the greatest outsider artist–I think he’s one of the greatest artists, period, of the 20th century.”

Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, by Michael Bonesteel, Rizzoli International Publications, 2000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.