Meet Henry Darger, the Most Famous of Outsider Artists, Who Died in Obscurity, Leaving Behind Hundreds of Unseen Fantasy Illustrations and a 15,000-Page Novel

In his cheeky invention of a character called Marvin Pontiac, an obscure West African-born bluesman, the avant-garde composer and saxophonist John Lurie created “a wry and purposeful sendup of the ways in which critics canonize and worship the disenfranchised and bedeviled,” Amanda Petrusich writes at The New Yorker. Lurie's satire shows how the critical fetish for outsider artists has a persistent emphasis: a hyperfocus on “misshapen yet perverse ideas” about class, race, education, and ability as markers of primitive authenticity.

The term "outsider art" can sound patronizing and even predatory, laden with assumptions about who does and who does not deserve inclusion and agency in the art world. Outsider art gets collected, exhibited, catalogued, and sold, usually accompanied by a semi-mythology about the artist’s fringe circumstances. Yet the artists themselves rarely seem to be the primary beneficiaries of any largesse. In the case of the fictional Marvin Pontiac, his status as “dead and heretofore undiscovered” makes the question moot. The same goes for the very real and perhaps most famous of outsider artists, whose life story can sometimes make Lurie’s Pontiac seem underwritten by comparison.

Reclusive hospital custodian Henry Darger spent his early years, after both parents died, in an orphanage and the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. He spent his almost completely solitary adult life in a second-floor room on the North Side of Chicago, attending Mass daily (often several times a day), before passing away in 1973 in the same old age home in which his father died. He had one friend, left only four photographs of himself, and his few acquaintances were never even sure how to pronounce his last name (it's a hard "g"). In his last diary entry, New Year’s Day, 1971, Darger wrote, “I had a very poor nothing like Christmas. Never had a good Christmas all my life, nor a good new year, and now… I am very bitter but fortunately not revengeful, though I feel should be how I am.”

So much for “outsider.” As for the label “Artist”—inscribed on his pauper’s grave (along with “Protector of Children”)—Darger shocked the art world, who had no idea he even existed, when his landlord discovered the typescript of an unpublished 15,000-page fantasy novelThe Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child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. Also in his apartment were a 8,500 follow-up, Further Adventures of the Vivian Girls in Chicago, and several hundred “panoramic ‘illustrations,’” notes the “official” Henry Darger website: “many of them double-sided and more than 9 feet in length.”

These works, we learn in the PBS video at the top, “The Secret Life of Henry Darger,” now regularly sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Darger, it seems, never meant for anyone to see them at all. Perhaps for good reason. His work leaves “a set of contradictory impressions,” Edward Gómez writes at Hyperallergic, “a celebration of childhood fulsomeness and a whiff of pedophiliac perversion.” The latter impression seems to have less to do with criminal sexual inclinations than with contemporary cultural perceptions about childhood. Compare Darger's work, for example, with Lewis Carroll's obsession with children, alarming to us now but not at all unusual at the time.

Still, Darger's hundreds of "drawings of naked, prepubescent girls whose bodies prominently include male genitals” have raised all sorts of questions. Critics have pointed to the obvious influence of Victorian children's literature, but perhaps even more pervasive was Darger's own painful childhood, his considerable discomfort with the adult world, and his expressed desire to protect children who might suffer similarly (a preoccupation shared by Charles Dickens). Learn about Darger’s troubled, tragic childhood in the Down the Rabbit Hole video biography above, and in these two portraits, see why his work deserves—despite but not because of his marginality and oddness, his being self-taught, and his desire for his art to disappear—the posthumous acclaim it has received. Like that quintessential outsider artist, William Blake, Darger left behind a daringly original body of work that is as compelling and beautiful as it is disturbing and otherworldly.

To delve deeper into Darger's world, check out the 2004 documentary, The Realms of the Unreal, which can be viewed on Youtube, or purchased on Amazon. The film's trailer appears below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

See Classic Japanese Woodblocks Brought Surreally to Life as Animated GIFs

Much of the image we have of life in Japan in the 17th through the 19th century, we have because of woodblock prints, or specifically ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world," which vividly capture a great variety of scenes and the people who inhabited them. The once-closed-off Japan has changed a great deal since that era, on most levels even more so than other countries, and the artistic portrayals of Japanese life have also multiplied enormously. Yet even in the 21st century, ukiyo-e continue to provide a compelling image of Japan in its essence.

But that doesn't mean that ukiyo-e prints can't be updated to reflect the present day. Filmmaker and animator Atsuki Segawa, writes Spoon & Tamago's Johnny Waldman, "takes traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints and sets them into motion through digital animation. He began his collection of 'moving ukiyo-e' in 2015 and has been slowly adding to his collection." At those two linked Spoon & Tamago posts you can see a selection of ten of Segawa's creations, which hybridize not just art forms but eras.

Here you can see Segawa's take on, from top to bottom, Kiyochika Kobayashi's Firework Show at Ryogoku, Katsushika Hokusai's Yoshida at Tōkaidō, Toshusai Sharaku's Nakamura Konozo and Nakajima Wadayemon ("If anyone has ever eaten oden you’ll know how this man feels," adds Waldman), Hokusai’s Ejiri in Suruga Province, Hokusai’s Great Wave, and Utagawa Hiroshige's Fujikawa. Keep your eye on that last and you'll notice Doc Brown and Marty McFly cruising through the scene, only the most obvious of the anachronistic touches (though as time travelers, what really counts as anachronism?) Segawa has added to these classic ukiyo-e and set into motion.

Segawa's other "moving ukiyo" introduce flying drones into an Osaka marketplace, the multicolored lights of speeding cars down a quiet seaside road, a Shinkansen bullet train passing a resting place full of weary foot travelers, and violent motion to the waves and boats in Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanazawa, quite possibly the most famous ukiyo-e print of them all.

Sheer incongruity — incongruity between the times of the elements depicted and referenced, between the aesthetics of the past and the aesthetics of the present, and between the technologies used to create and display the originals and these light-hearted revisions — has much to do with the appeal of these images, but somehow it all makes them feel much more, not less, like Japan itself.

via Spoon and Tamago

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Short Video Introduction to Hilma af Klint, the Mystical Female Painter Who Helped Invent Abstract Art

It can be both a blessing and curse for an artist to toil at the behest of an influential patron. Financial support and powerful connections are among the obvious perks. Being hamstrung by someone else’s ego and timeframe are some of the less welcome realities on the flip side.

Hilma af Klint, the subject of a high profile exhibition at the Guggenheim, does not fit the usual artist-patron mold. She made her paintings to suit a spirit named Amaliel, with whom she connected in a seance. Amaliel tapped her to convey a very important, as yet indecipherable message to humankind.

Although af Klint was an accomplished botanical and landscape painter who trained at the Royal Academy in Stockholm, “Paintings for the Temple,” 193 works produced between 1906 and 1915 upon order of her spirit guide, are brightly colored abstractions.

As the Guggenheim’s Senior Curator and Director of Collections, Tracey Bashkoff, points out above, af Klint’s work was trading in symbolic, non-naturalistic forms ten years before abstractions began showing up in the work of the men we consider pioneers—Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Paul Klee. Yet, she was nowhere to be found in MoMA’s 2012 blockbuster show, Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925. Curator Leah Dickerman implied that the snub was af Klint’s own fault for considering her work to be part of a spiritual practice, rather than a purely artistic one.

In his 1920 essay, Creative Confession, Klee wrote, “art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”

It was a sentiment Klint shared, but the spiritual message encoded in her work was intended for a future audience. She instructed her nephew that her work was to be kept under wraps until twenty years after her death. (She died in 1944, the same year as Kandinsky and Mondrian, but her work was not publicly shown until 1986, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art organized an exhibition titled The Spiritual in Art.)

Perhaps af Klint did not foresee how dramatically the respectability of spiritualism and seances—a popular pursuit of her time, and one shared by Mondrian and Kandinsky—would decline.

Her dedication to carrying out her spirit guide’s mission may remind some modern viewers of Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor who created hundreds of artworks and thousands of pages of text documenting the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, a strange and gory series of events taking place in an alternate reality that was very real to him.

Thus far no one has fully divined the spirit's message af Klint devoted so much of her life to preserving.

As critic Roberta Smith notes in her New York Times review of the Guggenheim show, af Klint, a member of the Swedish Lodge of the Theosophical Society, was well versed in occult spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, Buddhism, Darwinism, and the science of subatomic particles.

Hints of these interests are threaded throughout her work.

Color also helps to unlock the narrative. She used blue and lilac to represent female energy, rose and yellow for male, and green for the unity of the two. The Guardian’s Kate Kellaway reports that the artist may have been influenced by Goethe’s 1810 Theory of Colours.

Moving on to geometry, overlapping discs also stand for unity. U-shapes reference the spiritual world and spirals denote evolution.

Af Klint’s spiral obsession was not confined to the canvas. Roberta Smith reveals that af Klint envisioned a spiral-shaped building for the exhibition of The Paintings for the Temple. Visitors would ascend a spiral staircase toward the heavens, the exact configuration described by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior ramps at the Guggenheim.

Perhaps we are getting closer to understanding.

For further study, check out the Guggenheim’s Teacher’s Guide to Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future. See the exhibition in person through mid-April.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through December 20th in the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Evolution of The Great Wave off Kanazawa: See Four Versions That Hokusai Painted Over Nearly 40 Years

Has any Japanese woodblock print — or for that matter, any piece of Japanese art — endured as well across place and time as The Great Wave off Kanagawa? Even those of us who have never known its name, let alone those of us unsure of who made it and when, can bring it to mind it with some clarity, as sure a sign as any (along with the numerous parodies) that it taps into something deep within all of us. But though the artist behind it, 18th- and 19th-century ukiyo-e painter Katsushika Hokusai, was undoubtedly a master of his tradition, even he didn't conjure up The Great Wave off Kanagawa in the form we know it on the first try.

In fact, he'd been producing different versions of it for nearly forty years. On Twitter Tarin tkasasagi recently posted four versions of the Great Wave that Hokusai painted over that period. Here you see them arranged from top to bottom: the first from 1792, when he was 33; the second from 1803, when he was 44; the third from 1805, when he was 46; and the famous fourth from 1831, when he was 72.

Each time, Hokusai de-emphasizes the human presence and emphasizes the natural elements, bringing out drama from the water itself rather than from the people who regard or navigate it. In each version, too, the colors grow bolder and the lines stronger.

The skill level of a working artist — especially an artist working as hard as Hokusai — almost inevitably increases over time, and that must have something to do with these changes, though it also looks like the process of an artistic personality settling into its subject matter. "From the time I was six, I was in the habit of sketching things I saw around me," says Hokusai himself in a widely circulated quotation. "Around the age of 50, I began to work in earnest, producing numerous designs. It was not until my 70th year, however, that I produced anything of significance."

In the artist's telling, only at the age of 73, after the final Great Wave, did he begin to grasp "the underlying structure of birds and animals, insects and fish, and the way trees and plants grow. Thus if I keep up my efforts, I will have even a better understanding when I was 80 and by 90 will have penetrated to the heart of things. At 100, I may reach a level of divine understanding, and if I live decades beyond that, everything I paint — dot and line — will be alive." The fact that he didn't make it to 100 will forever keep enthusiasts wondering what magnificence an even older Hokusai might have achieved, but even so, the body of work he managed to produce in his 88 years contains works that, like the ultimate form of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, outlived him and will outlive all of us.

via Ted Gioia

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Take a Close Look at Basquiat’s Revolutionary Art in a New 500-Page, 14-Pound, Large Format Book by TASCHEN

At many a bookstore and art gallery gift shop, you will find copies of writer and artist Javaka Steptoe’s Radiant Child, a young person’s introduction to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The book has deservedly won a Caldecott Medal and the praise of adult readers who find as much or more to admire in it as their kids do. A surprisingly moving short biography, it hits many of the major notes in Basquiat’s formative years: His Brooklyn childhood and Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage; his love for his encouraging mother and heartbreak at her institutionalization in a mental hospital; his childhood spent in New York art galleries planning to be a famous artist, and his keen interest in anatomy textbooks, jazz, and black history….

But for a seriously deep immersion in the artist’s history and development, you will want to consult a new 500-page book from TASCHEN, Jean-Michel Basquiat XXL. Written by curator Eleanor Nairne and edited by Hans Werner Holzwarth, the “oversized hardcover,” notes This is Colossal,” is filled with large-scale reproductions of the artist’s drawings, paintings, and notebook pages. Several essays guide the reader year-by-year through Basquiat’s artistic career, from 1978 to his untimely death in 1988.”

The ten years the book covers provide enough material for two or three volumes, and also happen to tell the story of a cultural revolution in which Basquiat was at the center, as TASCHEN writes:

The legend of Jean-Michel Basquiat is as strong as ever. Synonymous with New York in the 1980s, the artist first appeared in the late 1970s under the tag SAMO, spraying caustic comments and fragmented poems on the walls of the city. He appeared as part of a thriving underground scene of visual arts and graffiti, hip hop, post-punk, and DIY filmmaking, which met in a booming art world. As a painter with a strong personal voice, Basquiat soon broke into the established milieu, exhibiting in galleries around the world.

Basquiat is now recognized—art scholar and curator Dieter Buchhart argues—as an artist who “eternalized… the exhilarating possibilities for art, music, and social critique in New York.” But for all the high praise he has garnered after his tragic overdose at 27, in life his work was often “’explained away’ by his Afro-Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage,” writes Kristen Foland at Swamp. “Some art historians and critics, including Sharon F. Patton, categorized his work as ‘primitive’ and called him a ‘black graffiti artist,’ a term he found inherently racist.”

Basquiat recoiled at the idea of being segregated and singled out as a “black artist”; but he proudly celebrated black life and cultural forms in narrative works rich with symbolism and poetry, mourning and triumph. Asked about his subject matter, he once replied, “royalty, heroism and the streets.” Grand themes and settings were what he had in mind, and Nairne fittingly titles her essay in the TASCHEN book, “The Art of Storytelling.”

Perhaps the reason Basquiat’s life makes such a good story, for kids and grownups alike, is that he himself was such a powerful storyteller. He weaved his personal history seamlessly into the social and political fabric that enmeshed him in the legendary late-seventies/early-eighties downtown New York scene. The new large format TASCHEN book lets you get a close-up look at the fine details of his revolutionary canvases, drawings, collages, wood panel paintings, and street poetry and painting.

via This is Colossal

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Andy Warhol Eat an Entire Burger King Whopper–While Wishing the Burger Came from McDonald’s (1981)

In the early 1980s, Danish experimental filmmaker Jørgen Leth came to America intent on capturing it live as it was actually lived across that vast, still-new, and often strange country. The result, 66 Scenes from America, offers images of roadside motels and diners, desert landscapes, the Manhattan skyline, miles of lonely highway, and stars and stripes aplenty. Halfway through it all comes the longest, and perhaps most American, scene of all: Andy Warhol eating a fast-food hamburger. A few moments after he accomplishes that task, he delivers the film's most memorable line by far: "My name is Andy Warhol, and I just finished eating a hamburger."

"Leth did not know Warhol, but he was a bit obsessed with him so he definitely wanted to have him in his movie," writes DailyArt's Zuzanna Stanska. And so when Leth came to New York, he simply showed up at Warhol's Factory and pitched him the idea of consuming a "symbolic" burger on film. "Warhol immediately liked the idea and agreed to the scene – he liked it because it was such a real scene, something he would like to do."

When Warhol showed up at the photo studio Leth had set up to shoot the scene, complete with a variety of fast-food hamburgers from which he could choose, he had only one question: "Where is the McDonald's?" Leth hadn't thought to pick one up from the Golden Arches as well, not knowing that Warhol considered McDonald's packaging "the most beautiful."

Warhol had a deep interest in American brands. "What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest," he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. "You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good." Surely the same could be said of any particular fast-food burger, even if Warhol couldn't have his preferred brand on that particular day in New York in 1981. In the event, he chose a Whopper from Burger King, still a well-known brand if hardly as iconic as McDonald's — or, for that matter, as iconic as Warhol himself.

Above, you can see Leth talking years later about his experience filming Warhol.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

See the Complete Works of Vermeer in Augmented Reality: Google Makes Them Available on Your Smartphone

No museum could ever put on a complete Vermeer exhibition. The problem isn't quantity: thus far, only 36 works have been definitively attributed to the 17th-century Dutch painter of domestic scenes and portraits, most famously Girl with a Pearl Earring. But they all hang in collections scattered around the world, not just in places like Amsterdam and The Hague but London, New York, Paris, and elsewhere besides. Some have become too fragile to travel, and one, The Concert, was stolen in 1990 and hasn't been seen since. But all of this makes a complete Vermeer exhibition the perfect concept to execute in virtual reality, or rather augmented reality — a concept just recently executed by the Mauritshuis museum and Google Arts & Culture.

"In total, 18 museums and private collections from seven countries contributed high-resolution images of the Vermeers in their possession, which were then compiled into a virtual museum by Google," writes Gizmodo's Victoria Song.

"To view the Meet Vermeer virtual museum, you can download the free Google Arts and Culture app for iOS and Android. So long as you have a smartphone with a working camera, all you have to do is point your phone at a flat surface, wave it in a circle, and voila — you, too, can have a virtual museum floating above your bed and nightstand. After that, you can pinch and zoom on each of the seven rooms to 'enter' the AR museum to view the paintings." If you enter the virtual museum on a computer, you can navigate a completely virtual version of those themed rooms, of which you can catch glimpses in the GIF below.

Google's augmented-reality technology, in other words, allows not just the creation of an entire virtual museum in which to view Vermeer's body of work together, but the creation of such a museum in any location where you might possibly open the app. Those of us who tend toward fantasies of a high-powered art collection will, of course, want to give it a try in our homes and get a taste of what it would look like if we had the cash on hand to round up all the Vermeers in the world ourselves. Whether the impecunious Vermeer himself — impecunious in part, no doubt, due to his lack of prolificacy — entertained such dreams of wealth, history hasn't recorded, though given the unabashed domesticity of his subjects, he might well agree that, for an exhibition of everything he ever painted, there's no place like home.

Again, to view the Meet Vermeer virtual museum, you can download the free Google Arts and Culture app for iOS and Android.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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