Back in 2010, I was fortunate to see an exhibit of outsider art in a ramshackle gallery in Camden, London. I was enthralled. It was the first time I had seen work by Henry Darger. My curiosity piqued. I had to know everything about him.
Now, I won’t trouble you with a bio of Darger; he’s the “most famous” outsider artist – if I can be permitted the oxymoron – and there is abundant information on the web. But I do highly recommend these three videos, which I viewed the other day and lead to this blog:
They rekindled my interest in Darger – and outside art in general. Perhaps more interesting, upon watching them, was the clear connections I saw between Darger’s life and work and my private autism. Post diagnosis, I cannot help but view the world around me, and past events, from an autistic lens. What follows is not a diagnosis; I’m not qualified! It is merely my reflections on what I have noticed about Darger. Often, I find it helpful – comforting – to find common ground with other people – real or imagined, famous or not; I don’t feel so alone. I struggle to do this in “real life”. So, rightly or wrongly, I look upon “historical figures” like a mirror – looking for my own reflection in their works. I believe I found this in Darger; specifically, what I believe are his possible autistic traits. What follows are my observations, in no particular order.
Precocious, Troubled Youth
From what I understand, Darger was very intelligent – perhaps the “little professor” I was when I was young. By Darger’s own admission, people around him found him to be a “smart aleck”. Unfortunately, like a lot of autistic people in the early half of the 20th century, he was institutionalized (read the excellent book “Neurotribes” to learn more); he did not get along with his classmates and behaved oddly towards them – understandable, if he had ASD. I can relate to being misunderstood (listen to the excellent song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to learn more), unable to share your knowledge, then being punished for obscure, unknown reasons. Darger also made strange noises; another odd habit of mine, that persists to this day. I often mimic a drum beat, a sound effect or start randomly humming some vague melody. But trust me – I couldn’t sing my way out of a wet paper bag.
Like many autistic people, including myself – as my comics, magazines, books, hockey cards, DVDs, CDs, records, Belgian beer glasses and antique bottles will attest – Darger was a collector. His simple one room apartment was full of images he used to practice his art – tracing or collage. When he lost one image in particular, he searched for it for years; it greatly affected him. Obviously, he attached great value to inanimate objects, like many of us on the spectrum. I also find myself becoming obsessed with lost items – particularly if it was part of a collection. I think I can remember every single thing I ever lost; to this day, I still find myself generating theories as to their disappearances. Hate losing stuff! Like Darger, I am also very attached to certain articles of clothing, often mending them myself. He wore the same coat all year round. I sense he was also very reluctant to let go of things.
Interestingly, of all the things Darger collected, after his death a large number of empty Pepto-Bismol bottles were found in his apartment. I believe this suggests he had a history of digestive issues; these are common and well documented among autistic people – myself included. I’ve been battling my stomach for years now. Every year, I have to give up on some food. Every year, a new supplement to help me digest whatever food is left. The battle rages on.
Neighbours reported that Darger had trouble sleeping, or if he did it was in his chair – never the bed. Some reported he hardly seemed to sleep at all; others wondered how he found so much time to do so much painting and writing – was he awake all the time? Alas, this is another classic feature of my private autism – one shared by countless others on the spectrum.
By all accounts, Darger preferred the solitude of this one room apartment, where he created his incredible world. No one knew he was creating art, during his life. He was very secretive. He only had one friend – William Schloeder. This trait also resonated with me. In the past, I had many friends and was able to tolerate social events. Now, I pretty much keep to myself. In fact, I want to be alone. One day, I hope to live in an isolated log cabin – a hermetic existence, far from the pressures of the neurotypical world.
Naive & Easily Taken Advantage Of
Thinking back, I am shamed at the number of times I have been taken advantage of. Something about my naiveté, honesty, good will, eagerness to please and/or puritan work ethic seems to get picked up on and weaponized. It can take me awhile to realise that this is happening; sometimes, other people need to tell me. I see the same trend in Darger’s life. His only friend made him pay for their many visits to Chicago amusement parks, even though Darger was skint.
Law Abiding – Followed a Code Very Closely
Obedient, faithfully following rules and the word of God, Darger pushed himself to do the right thing at all times. Being autistic, I also have a deep need to follow a process without fail – instructions to adhere to, a moral code to live by. He had a very strong, deeply entrenched sense of honour, coupled with an unwavering moral compass, built up by years of solitude. I suspect he could not tolerate liars, cheats and hypocrites; nor can I.
Like me, Darger lead a frugal lifestyle – eating the same things and living very simply. Maybe that is all he could cope with. My mind is focused on so many things at once, I cannot be bothered with what is trendy, in fashion or considered the norm. I live a simple, Zen-like existence; nothing pretentious about my cold basement apartment! Even at my age, and with all my education and experience, I am one or two paycheques away from being homeless.
Incredible Imagination and Creativity
I find my imagination helps me cope within the neurotypical world. When I was young, I had imaginary friends and I mimicked voices of celebrities – to great comic effect. Darger had the same coping mechanism (I’ll call it that). By all accounts, he had a classic example of a rich inner life. People would walk by his closed door and hear several different voices, when Darger was the only one present. Darger’s unfinished book was called: “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”. To me, it suggests complete immersion in a detailed fantasy world as a means of coping – surviving. I can relate; I do the same thing via this blog, The Surreal Adventures of Anthony Zen, photography and filmmaking. “In his own little world”, people often described Darger; I can relate!
Fluid / Naive Sexuality
Much has been said of Darger’s depiction of the Vivian Girls as having penises. Some have hypothesized that he was gay. Personally, I find this too simplistic. I don’t believe this depiction is a radical statement, either. I believe this has more to do with sexual fluidity and naiveté often associated with ASD. Now, this does not imply sexual preference, but can be expressed in the free-flowing myriad of (subconscious) thoughts and feelings – completely normal for a person with ASD. This is what I find, anyway. While being heterosexual, I have an interest in – attraction to – androgyny. This has flavoured my taste in music – particularly glam and 80s new wave – and film. I seem to be open-minded, in this sense.
Underdeveloped Social Communication Skills
According to witnesses, Darger didn’t want to speak and didn’t want to be spoken to. His landlady said he could not relate to anything or anyone around him – “very alone”. Furthermore, he didn’t pay attention to people, as if they didn’t exist, and avoided meeting people he knew on the street. For me, based upon my own autism, these seem like general indicators of ASD.
Response to Criticism
It appears Darger had a quiet response to criticism; but he would act out his frustrations later, when he was alone – often via his art. Like me, he avoided confrontation and – for better or worst – saved it for later, sometimes letting it build up into a meltdown. It was noted that he would have tantrums and bouts of swearing. Perhaps he too had a hard time forgetting when someone had wronged him. At any rate, this very private, secretive man always waited until he was safe inside the familiar confines of his room, before he let it all out.
Age Blind, Young at Heart with Persistent Childhood Obsessions
Much has been written about Darger’s preoccupation with child protection (note the title of his unfinished novel) and the young girls populating his paintings. I feel this might be due to a sense of agelessness which I’ve read is common in people with ASD – and evident in my own life. Often, I don’t share the same interests as other adults, still clinging to interests, experiences and memories I had when I was younger. In addition, many of my thoughts and interests have not changed much since I was in high school, to be honest. I am still deeply tied to my youth. I can visualize it so clearly; it is clearer than the walk I just made across this room to write this blog. In addition, I often relate to young people more easily than adults; perhaps due to maintaining some of my sense of wonder, coupled with open mindedness, in the predominantly neurotypical adult world. Speaking of obsessions, typical of those of us on the spectrum, Darger had a lifelong obsession with the weather – “all he would talk about” – to the point he seemed unconscious of his surroundings.
Darger didn’t like change; by his own admission, change in the weather made him cry. Add to that the fact he remained in the same one room apartment for his entire adult life, let alone spending most of it at the same custodian job in the same hospital (never leaving Chicago), and you have ample evidence of a man who preferred the familiarity of repetition, similar to many of us on the spectrum.
The “Autistic Gaze”
It is said that you can sometimes spot an autistic person by looking at photographs of them; in particular, their eyes (in fact, I know of a study to diagnose ASD in newborns by closely studying their eyes). I think it is more likely that, once you know someone is autistic, photographs of them become understandable. When I look back at photos of myself, and I generally don’t like being photographed, I can see the “autistic gaze” – that far off look. My body is rigid; my smile forced, unnatural. I just don’t photograph well. Through the years, I have frustrated many a photographer with my flimsy attempts at being photogenic. “Relax” they plead. Right. Thought I was relaxed! I can see the same distant awkwardness in the very few existing photographs of Darger. Judge for yourself!
Note: I found it interesting that he had tape around the end of his glasses. Perhaps a sensory issue? I also have to adjust everything I wear to suit my sensory issues.
So, there are a few of my observations upon venturing into the strange and wonderful world of Henry Darger. Keep in mind, these are viewed through the prism of my own private autism. If you find any other feature or aspect of his life that suggests he had autism, please feel free to add them in the comments section. If you’re unfamiliar with Darger’s work, then now is the time to introduce yourself to his realms of the unreal!