The Secret Life and Art of Henry Darger

The Secret Life and Art of Henry Darger

is a re-creation of the one-room apartment that
Henry Darger lived and worked in for close to 40 years. From the early part
of the 20th century until his death in
1973, Henry Darger filled this room with
an enormous number of paintings and illustrations,
collage drawings, and volumes of writings, including
a memoir and a novel that’s over 15,000 pages long. And no one knew anything
about it until after his death. CRAIG BENZINE: This is Debra
Kerr, executive director of Intuit, the Center for
Intuitive and Outsider Art. Nothing, nothing,
this is all secret. He never intended anyone,
as far as we know, to see it. As a matter of fact,
on his deathbed, he told his landlord
to throw it all away. [MUSIC PLAYING] CRAIG BENZINE: Of course, his
art wasn’t all thrown away. After his death,
Henry Darger’s landlord started to throw it out. But they recognized the
value in it and saved it. And now, some of it sits on
display at Intuit in Chicago. DEBRA KERR: We are
the only nonprofit in the United States
dedicated solely to exhibiting outsider art. Outsider art is art
created by people outside the mainstream,
self-taught, no influence by the traditional
academy of art. I guess you could say
that Henry Darger is the ultimate outsider artist. Right, right. We could say that. We could say that. CRAIG BENZINE:
Henry Darger is one of the most well-known
and celebrated outsider artists in the world. His works are much sought
after and routinely sell for hundreds of
thousands of dollars. But despite this acclaim, we
know very little about Darger himself. CRAIG BENZINE: We know we worked
as a janitor at a hospital most of his life. He was deeply religious. And he attended church
on a regular basis. But he only had one
friend that we know of. And no one knew about his work. While he did write a
memoir, it was incomplete. So why he worked in
secret is a mystery. And the only answers
we have are what can be gleaned from
the art he left behind. He was a recluse. He lived in the real room that
is recreated here for 40 years. Everything here was in his room. It’s neater, in general,
than it was in his room. These are photographs of
the room as it was found. So you can see,
there’s a lot going on. Stuff is piled up everywhere. Lots of materials. We actually have 50 more boxes
of stuff that’s not even out. CRAIG BENZINE: I see a
picture of him over here. Looking him up, that’s
the only picture I saw. Is there any other– There’s another
picture that I’ve seen of him as a younger man,
with his friend from the army. CRAIG BENZINE: Why do
you think he made it? Why did he make this art? DEBRA KERR: Well, we
won’t know for sure. But clearly, he was
compelled to create the art. And he was compelled
to write the story. This is the way he
expressed himself. Could you tell me a little
bit more about the art itself? Well, people are sometimes
shocked when they see his art. So the story is,
I think, somewhat important to understanding
what the art is about. In his early years, he
started a novel called “In the Realms of the Unreal.” And then in his later
years, after he came back from his year of
service in World War I, he began to
illustrate the story. So think of something
along the lines of Tolkien, or “Game of Thrones.” He wrote this 15,000-page
novel about the Vivian Girls, his heroines, seven girls who
led an army to free a group of child slaves that were being
held captive by an evil army. So it’s your classic
good-versus-evil story. But when you see
some of the images, they’re sort of horrifying. But when you put that
in the context of here are the evils being
done to the child slaves by the evil
Glandelinians, and they’re about to be rescued
by the Vivian Girls and their good army,
it’s a little bit more palatable to see why he
created those images. All right, this is an
interesting painting. This is on loan from one of
our board members, Bob Roth. And I like this one
to be here because you can see all three– well,
all seven, three here and four over here,
of the Vivian Girls. And they are in
their army uniforms. And here, you can see
the evil Glandelinians that they’re fighting against. And I love that he
has captioned it for us– “A battle
near McHollester Run.” I like this. They all sound very
Civil War to me. “Vivian Girls fired
on nearby from ambush. But they shoot
their way to safety without one being injured.” Great! The Vivian Girls did it again. But it’s a very dramatic scene. Here’s the vestiges of the
fight, the oncoming train, the girls trying to get away. It’s all very exciting. CRAIG BENZINE: It’s awesome. DEBRA KERR: We know that
he saw these young girl characters as important. He also wrote that he thought
girls were really strong, that he thought that girls
were stronger than boys and that’s why he made
girls the head of his army, with men following
these seven girls. He had an affinity for
children, obviously, and an affinity for these girls
that he saw as his heroines. Children and their safety
were a big concern for Darger. At one point, he
proposed starting a children’s protective
society, which would help abused and
neglected children get adopted into loving families. From what we can tell
from public records and his own memoirs, Darger
had a tough childhood. Both his parents died
when he was young. And he ended up
in an institution. They sent him to a place
in downstate Illinois called an Asylum for
Feeble Minded Children. We would never named
something that now. And we’ve come a
long way in terms of the effects of
institutionalization on people. And he was
institutionalized there. We know he was unhappy. He tried to run away. On his third
attempt to run away, he successfully came
back to Chicago. We don’t know how he was
treated, exactly, there. In his autobiography, he said
that one time when he ran away, someone came after him on
horseback and lassoed him and made him run behind the
horse back to the asylum. And we do know that
there are records of other children experiencing
abuse at this facility before it was closed. This is an image of
the child slaves. Here, they’re tied up. And here’s this cowboy
figure on horseback. And he is trying
to lasso this girl. And that reflects the story that
he told of his own attempted escape from the asylum. CRAIG BENZINE: It’s a
pretty powerful image. DEBRA KERR: It is
a powerful image. It can be scary. But when you put in the
context of there’s a story and it’s illustrating
a story, then that helps you realize that
this is not the end. This is a moment, a snapshot,
along the story line. CRAIG BENZINE: Do
you think there was any intention of
publishing, of going public with this stuff? We don’t know. We’ll never know. It’s really interesting
because it’s like he just did that for himself. He did all of this
just for himself. And he didn’t see
any value in it. He didn’t see that
it was valuable. He taught himself to draw
by tracing other images. And in the mainstream,
we might think that tracing is not valuable. But you see him using
tracing and collage. He cut some things out
and pasted them in. Some things you can tell that
he attempted to draw freehand. So it’s a very interesting
mix of styles together. CRAIG BENZINE: So do you
think part of the intrigue is that it was secret
while he was alive. Do you think if he
were alive and he was putting this out there,
it wouldn’t be as popular. Well, certainly the secret
is part of intrigue and part of the aura around these works. But I think the works
stand on their own as legitimate artworks. And would he be as
popular if he’d been pushing the works out there? Well, he wouldn’t
maybe fit as neatly into the outsider art category. I think that the reason
this is pure outsider art is because he did
it just for himself. CRAIG BENZINE: So what
do you guys think? How do you think
Darger’s art would have been received
if it had been released when he was alive? MATT WEBER: Or what if
it had been thrown away? I mean, could it be considered
art if only the artist sees it? How do you even make the
judgment of whether it’s art or not? Don’t you need other
people to watch it? It’s like the tree falling
in the woods and no one around to hear it or see it? To determine whether
it was art or not. Let us know in the comments. By the way, I was
around to see it. And it did fall into the woods. And it made a sound. It was– Yeah, but then you
would have been there. And then that would negate the– But I’m dead. Shabbalah! [LAUGHTER] Thanks for watching. If you liked our show,
consider clicking like. And if you want to see more,
consider clicking subscribe. And if you want to
support our show, consider going to
our Patreon page. And if you hate the show, just
don’t even consider anything. You don’t have to do anything. You can just go do something
else like go bowling. That sounds great. Seems like internet’s
not for you. All right, so last
week, we went to Area 51. And you had something to say
about that in the comment section. And we’re going to reply
to your comments right now. Good old-fashioned
question answer. GerardDennis asked where
are Areas 1 through 50. Well, you’re probably
trying to make a joke. But this is an
interesting question because there’s an
interesting answer. Well, Area 51 isn’t
its official name. It’s usually referred
to by a couple names, Homey Airport in Groom Lake. And it’s part of
Edwards Air Force Base. It was referred to as Area
51 in the CIA document from the Vietnam War. And that might have
something to do with the Atomic Energy
Commission’s grid numbering system of the area. According to Wikipedia, it’s
adjacent to Area 15, which, I guess, could mean that
the CIA made a typo when they were talking about it. But in the end, we’re not really
sure why it’s called Area 51. CRAIG BENZINE: It’s a secret. Yeah, it’s a secret. A lot of you had
good suggestions for why we like secrets. Yeah. You know? We like the unknown. We like the limitless
possibility. Yeah, not knowing
gives you possibility. You can make up your own answer. And who doesn’t love that? Yeah, and sometimes the
answer could be boring. Yeah, and I’d rather
not have the answer. I just want my own
imagination to run wild. And that way, you’re
not wrong, too. Why do you like secrets? Are you interested in secrets? I mean, I like
secrets, I guess. And what I think
secrets are, and I think they are a
distillation of curiosity. And when we’re
talking about secrets, we’re talking about
wanting answers. We want truth. And that’s what we’re looking
for when there’s a secret. We want to know the
truth of that secret. But there’s an opposite side
of that, which we’ve already talked about, is that when we
don’t know what the truth is, we make up our own truth. And that can be like
we’re making up meaning. We’re giving this empty
spot, this missing piece of the jigsaw
puzzle, we’re giving it meaning by
making up our own truth. So we’re playing god. Sort of, or making god
to fill in that space. Sort of like the show “Lost,”
the whole show was a secret. And once they
revealed the answer, it sucked, according to me. Yeah, if you’re going
to watch that show, I mean, you can probably
stop after season 2. Yeah, just live
with the secret. Just live in the secret. Next week, we’ll be
talking about one of the biggest secrets
in the universe. The recipe for Coca-Cola? No, but that’s a good one. Dark matter. Yeah, dark matter, what is it? Where is it? Well, we know it’s in space. But we don’t know what it is. And we’re trying to detect it. We’re trying to find out. That’s what we do. [MUSIC PLAYING]

100 thoughts on “The Secret Life and Art of Henry Darger”

  • I don't think art needs anyone to see it. If you do something that you enjoy it's art, more so perhaps than the modern art stuff that gets seen every day. Like that blue painting that sold for millions.

  • If no one hears the tree fall, it's totally still art. The more I learn about contemporary art, I think that the entire goal of the 70's was to make the question "is it art" obsolete. This kind of making imaginative drawing fits pretty comfortably into any definition of art anyway.

  • Art doesn't need an audience. Curators and creators can share and make art, and people can enhance and change the experience of art. But at its core, art just is.

  • I think he was embarrassed of his art due to the fact that people might think he's crazy for drawing naked and murdered children.

    Also was this book ever published and were his art pieces included?

  • Thanks to this, I was inspired to seek out and rewatch In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) by Jessica Wu. If anyone has ANY interest in this story, I urge you to likewise seek it out.
    This man, with his internal passions, spent his entire life completely dedicated to the task of telling this story. The thing that strikes me about this, the thing that, to me, makes this narrative so relevant to the modern world, is this question: For every content creator with thousands of subscribers and tens of thousands of views in total, how many orders of magnitude more are there out there, whether on YouTube, on DeviantArt,, whatever, who are doing the very same thing as Henry Darger, creating a massive universe of creativity, with no one knowing about it, because there is no mechanism to discover these quiet creators of content? And more personally, as someone dedicated to becoming one of those content creators, is that fate going to be my own? Or will it be worse still, and my creativity not be discovered by some lucky landlord even after my death?

  • It's funny you should say that one should stop at season 2 of Lost. That's exactly where I stopped since I'd watched the first couple seasons on DVD, but season 3 was halfway over by the time I'd done that, and I never got around to going back to it later. Guess maybe I dodged a bullet on that one :0).

  • I find this rather intriguing. On one hand, I can see how people would consider this stuff to be of value, however, on the other hand you have to wonder if the guy was a pedophile. I am not talking about someone who molests children, that would be classified as a child molester. I am talking about someone who finds young children sexually attractive. What makes me wonder is the fact that he did all this in secret, did not tell a soul about it and even wanted it trashed when he was dying. The fact that, in a lot of the art, the girls are naked. I understand the story behind it and all, this is why I am not fully convinced he was a pedophile.

    Not much is known about him and and a lot of pedophiles are not the type to be talkative, even more so when you have a life long stash of drawings of naked little girls. Just something to consider. Not trying to be mean or anything, but we should consider all aspects of who this man was since not much was known about him.

    These drawings seem to come from the mind of someone who is not fully all there. Has a few screws loose, not the work of some artistic savant. Children being stabbed, ripped open, knife through the chest. Seems a little extreme. So what if there is a "story" behind the art. Even if he is not a pedophile, the fact that he draws all that death and carnage tells me he is a bit off his rocker.

    Can you imagine what Darger would think if he came back and saw all the images he had drawn of the little girls up on display for everyone to see? I know he is dead, but perhaps there was an underlying reason as to why he wanted to keep it a secret.

  • I don't see what this has to do with basically anything, but I'm glad you covered it and it's cool that folks are getting a lot out of it.

  • I know these people have good intentions.
    But.His wish was that his work should be destroyed, he clearly didnt want his life to be presented, showed or sold. It feels wrong to see what they have done to his life.

  • Yes, I believe it can be considered art even when only the artist sees it. Art is the artistic expression of the artist, regardless of who sees it.
    Why else would we be interested in the paintings of artists who reused canvases that said artists painted over. The artists themselves decided they didn't want to share them with the world for whatever reason, but people still try to see what is under the top layer of paint.

  • How do you make a judgment whether it's "art"? You don't. You go make your own, and you will have no time to be a critic. 馃槈

  • art is an expression of ones self and people can experience expression in many forms. so if this is true then it only takes someone to experience the expression for it to be considered art, even if that is only ones self.

  • He sounds like he was a wonderful man. It's a bummer life wasn't better to him while he was alive. But it's very cool that he's getting recognition now

  • Is it art if no-one sees it? Makes me instantly think of Kafka. I'd say yes with the argument that art is life and life is art 馃檪

  • A recent book by Olivia Laing The Lonely City considers Darger. I had never heard of Darger before but she gives him a respectful and even elegant consideration.

  • Did that woman actually say "the category of outsider art" The micro brew swilling hosts are
    jealous because the Vivian Girls have bigger penises than they have. She should leave her hat
    with her art…outside. Darger was a prophet.

  • the leader of that institute has a genius for understatement bordering on plain stupidity. If you are going to talk about Dargers childshood at all then be honest. He was horribly abused. He was basically a child slave himself. If you sugar coat it then it makes his art make no sense.

  • "His work can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars." And yet Darger worked as a janitor and lived in a simple room.
    It's hard not to think that he was picked over by vultures after his death.

  • Bert Paulson brings up a significant detail that this video completely ignores. And in so doing misrepresents Darger. It's not really honest to leave this detail out.

  • Who cares what is or isn't art. It's all made up labels that mean nothing. But for the sake of argument, to me anyone creating something just for themselves and not with an audience in mind is about as pure a thing as you can get and what actual "art" is.
    I think he was too scared of the world and people to do much at all and hid away from the world and he just had a creative drive that some people have more than others and put all his past childhood experiences and also his love for books, like the oz series, into his own creation. His life was totally consumed by the abuse he suffered as a child and his obsession with protecting other children from suffering any kind of abuse, so that came out in what he created.

  • His art was done at a time when art of young slave girls was not exactly acceptable , he probably felt it best to keep it secret. Religion was quite repressive in those days.



  • Great outsider art.聽 Art is in the eyes of the beholder.聽 Even the horror of his battle scenes as disturbing as they are, show great thought and creativity.聽 Nice video guys!

  • If you want your creation not to be seen, then you have to destroy it while your'e alive. Otherwise it becomes an excercise in futility. Anyways, in the universe nothing gets destroyed, it can always be retrieved. But that's another story.

  • How would he have been perceived? Badly, unfortunately. This isn't the type of artwork that would be wildly popular. And that's a shame.

  • I've read several things in the comments below that are not quite right… but that's this video's fault: Darger did not want his worked destroyed, he was very ill at the very end of his life and was moved to a hospital, the landlords enter his room to make some cleaning and found his arta, they went to see Darger at his bed in the hospital and asked him "what should we do with this? We think is marvelous… can we keep it?" and he thought about it for a moment and then said "if yoi like it then you can do whatever you want with it" short after that he died. Also, the naked androginous girls look like that because Darger himself never saw a naked woman in his life, so he didn's even know about different sets of genitalia. he never had sex with any woman because he had a sister and they were split appart at a very young age, Darger was scared he could end up in bed with her by mistake if he ever tried to have sex, so either way he never really know anything about the subjetc.
    I highly recomment the docummentary "In the realms of unreal", is a ver complete and interesting analysis of Darger's life and work… not like this video.

  • For all of you please watch Fredrik Knudsen's down the rabbit hole about him, he was a tragic and interesting figure

  • If art is a mirror to oneself, then this is something worth seeing. Did you see perversion? Did you see mutilation? Did you see innocence? Did you see asexuality? Did you see the power of femininity unfettered by puberty? Did you see…?

    What you see is what you are. It is not your answer you should be concerned with – but rather the reason (in your own head) for your answer that should concern you. And, if like me, you consider all these things – have we become so considerationary that the true message of the art is lost? How we, or I, lost our, or my, way? This outcome is equally disconcerting.

    Making this great art.

  • I don't think he was like creepy or a pedo. If anything he was lonely and schizophrenic. It may seem weird to us. But he never hurt anyone and even though the subject is odd the paintings are beautiful and creative

  • Why can Americans never talk a bit more slowly, they hurry thru language as if s/o is behind them. Also this documentary gave you no chance to take a closer look on the art or the room where Darger lived. About the question: Should this art have been made public, I am not sure. It's a hard thing to tell. On the one hand it was personal and it was the express wish of the artist, that it should be destroyed. On the other hand, maybe it's of greater value: to help people with similar background to tell their story, to help people who shy away from calling themselves artists to think it over. And of course ART is ART, no matter if s/o sees it or not or if it sells or not. Art is art is art is art…and it can be healing.

  • as an artist myself and a person who reveres other ppls boundaries as sacred. the fact that Henry Danger's wishes to have his belongs disposed of were directly disregarded and violated – hurts me deeply. That was his private mind and heartfelt expressions meant to remain unseen.

  • Art in it's purest form is about creative expression. Concerns for what others will think, and fear of that shame reduce purity of expression, and therefore it's purity as art.

  • What a fascinating and creative man. I've just recently started looking into Darger's life and art and love the whole idea of the socially rejected recluse secretly creating a new world for himself in art.

  • depends on how the word "art" is defined: if we only mean "that created by humans" then the scope is limited. If we say "that which is aesthetically pleasing" then everything we see is art.

  • It will be great if the museum or his work can help fund raising for child slaves.. artist himself have a sad childhood and might be vhild slqve victim

  • Art is art regardless whether or not others see it. Would it have become popular? Not, unless the buyers had some "strange" reason to buy it. That said, I think he was an artist. It's just a primitive form of Picasso's Guernica and the horrors of war (or what we know very well, is happening, children being kidnapped and put through torture and often killed, while people keep letting it continue.) He painted real life, but the real life most people pretend is not real. Of course, he wanted it tossed. He had to be a bit insane, having to deal with was in his "imagination".

  • Anyone raised in the state system can appreciate this art. To others it may be perplexing at best. Just take it at face value. The people meant to understand it will do just that.

  • I came here after listening to a podcast episode about murdered children; a little girl named Elsie Paroubek was killed in Chicago in 1911 and her picture fascinated Darger…. She became Anna Arondale, the leader of the Vivian Girls!!
    In a time when girls didn't hold any power at all, he made them strong, independent heroines 鉂わ笍 thank you, Henry! I wish I could have met you.

  • I find this fascinating because this wasn't just a world he created, it was his own personal world that he labored over to create.

  • after watching a documentary about francis bacon, this guy is about as opposite as u can get–other than the abusive pasts.

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