Henry Darger in Contemporary Culture

John Ashbery's book-length 1999 poem, "Girls on the Run," inspired by the Vivian sisters of Henry Darger, includes the following lines:

But you know, our fashions are in fashion
only briefly, then they go out
and stay that way for a long time. Then they come back in
for a while. Then, in maybe a million years, they go out of fashion
and stay there.

Ably imitating the idiosyncratic writing style of Darger, Ashbery suggests the unpredictable way in which cultural phenomena may attain brief popularity, disappear, but then mysteriously gain a foothold for "maybe a million years." Henry Darger, whose vast body of work was not known at all during his lifetime, gained more than a flicker of recognition in the later 1970s and early 1980s, but since the 1990s, he has emerged as a seemingly permanent feature of our cultural landscape. That Ashbery, considered by many to be America's greatest living poet, should devote such attention to the creations of a reclusive, self-taught, and utterly obscure former hospital janitor, suggests the vast cultural distances that Darger's work has traveled since its discovery by Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner.

In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired more than a dozen of Darger's finest large-scale works on paper. The gift of these works by Kiyoko Lerner represented MoMA's largest acquisition by of work by a self-taught artist. In doing so, the museum, which had long resisted recognizing the achievements of such artists, was acknowledging what artists, musicians, poets, and filmmakers had long known: that Darger's work is not only a cultural treasure in itself but represents a rich trove of inspiration.

Lerner's gift was made in honor of Klaus Biesenbach, a MoMA curator and long-time champion of Darger's work. In 2000, the theme of war in Darger's art, including graphic depictions of killings and atrocities, was explored in the exhibition Disasters of War, organized by Biesenbach at MoMA's P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. The exhibition juxtaposed Darger's drawings with the famous prints of that title by Francisco de Goya, as well as installations by the contemporary British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman.

That exhibition was a watershed in the art world's recognition of Darger's importance, not only for his work's relationship to contemporary art, but, retrospectively, for the ways it illuminates the achievements of major historical artists such as Goya and Joseph Cornell, whose themes, including innocence and childhood, and also techniques, including the use of photostats to copy printed imagery, closely parallel those of Darger. In 2008 the American Folk Art Museum, New York, mounted the exhibition Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger, which surveyed recent art showing the impact of Darger's oeuvre on artists, including Amy Cutler, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Robyn O'Neil.

Biesenbach's essay "American Innocence," in the book Henry Darger (Prestel, 2010), which he edited, focuses on Darger's impact on contemporary art, pointing out that Darger "created a body of work that resonates with what we now see as primary themes and concerns of artists in recent decades." Among the many current artists mentioned in that essay are several who specifically cite Darger as a source, such as Grayson Perry and Paul Chan.

Henry Darger was a great fan of movies—scenes from silent films starring the great Mary Pickford seem to have been particular favorites—and Darger's own life, as well as his extraordinary artwork, has been the subject of several films, notably Jessica Yu's award-winning 2004 documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger, and the 2011 Revolutions of the Night: The Enigma of Henry Darger, by British director Mark Stokes.

The potential of Darger's work for theater and opera was already seen in the 1990s. A play, Jennie Richee, by Mac Wellman, named for the site of a major battle in the great war that Darger chronicles in his writings and art, was presented in 2000 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Mike Walker's radio play, Darger and the Detective, performed by members of Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company, was aired by BBC Radio 3 in 2009. Current theatrical projects in development include The Strange Case of Henry Darger, written by New York–based producer-director Judith Kampfner.

Darger has been a steady presence throughout popular culture, inspiring fashion designs, by Anna Sui, for example, and a seemingly endless stream of popular music: Darger's heroines provided the name for the all-girl indie/punk band from Brooklyn, The Vivian Girls; "Henry Darger" is sung by Natalie Merchant on her album Motherland; and there are numerous other examples. Darger's art has inspired symphonic music as well. Composer Jefferson Friedman's Sacred Heart: Explosion, premiered in 2014 by the American Youth Symphony, is inspired by one of Darger's best-known paintings.

— Christopher Lyon

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