Image by Billa via Flickr
Imaginary worlds fascinate me, especially the ones that begin as a secret haven. Other worlds I’ve read about are Boxen created by C. S. Lewis and his brother, Islandia by Austen Tappen Wright and, of course, Gondal and Angria created by the four Bronte siblings.
Henry Darger began creating his imaginary world in his late teens and worked on it until he was in his 70s. I’ve read about Darger’s efforts in books and online quite a bit. I was pleased to learn there had been a documentary made about his life and his fantasy world.
According to the film, his personal life was painful and lacked any kind of vitality. Darger lost his parents at a young age. He had no memories of his younger sister because she had been adopted as a baby. He did not even know her name. Darger worked as a janitor in Chicago for most of his life, except for a stint in the army. He had one friend. He never had a pet.
But his inner life was entirely different. He created a 15,000 page book on the chronicles of the Princesses – The Vivienne Girls – who were waging war against the child-enslaving villains of a neighboring country. Along with the text story, he created paintings depicting both war and peace in the fantasy world. He used illustrations in children’s books and magazines as models, which he used in unusual ways for his paintings. A few of them were 12 feet long. Some of the more unusual paintings featured girls with goats’ horns or butterfly wings, giant flowers, personified cloud formations and winged serpentine monsters.
His fiction from the excerpts I read online and as narrated in the film was less than pleasing. But I have to say that I enjoyed looking at his art. The colors and the weird images were appealing to me. Jessica Yu, the director, chose limited animation in portraying some of the images, which I didn’t mind. One of the aspects of the art that puzzles people is that some, but not all, of the little girls have male genitalia. Some of the people interviewed suggested that Darger didn’t know anything about female anatomy. Darger described the Vivienne Girls in particular as being more skillful than ordinary girls are and more powerful than adult men. It could be that this was Darger’s way of showing the difference in these girls. Or not.
It appears to me that these secret imaginary worlds are usually created in dismal circumstances. On the other hand, it is amazing what the mind can create under pressure. And several of these secret worlds were eventually the source of great creative projects, so it’s not all bad.