The Vivian Girls Grow Up


Project Wall:

 "Let us not arrive at conclusions!  The present, a chance event, will free us."

--Georges Braque[i]


Here, I am delving further into the problematic realm of vulnerability, sexuality, commerce and inspiration, while grappling with the physical manifestation of this experiment:  a single wall, which should be seen as one composition, and which combines some old and some new kinds of media.  It is not necessary to make too literal a connection between the content I present and the Vivian Girls, the heroines of Henry Darger's visual and literary output.  But I will say this:  I have long been concerned with the oddness, persistence, harmfulness and enduring validity of the male gaze, and how it relates culturally and commercially as a phenomenon to the vulnerability of its most common subject matter, girls and young women (at least since classical times, when, for example, Psyche's beauty became a commodity, which angered Venus.[ii]).

Like Darger[iii], I have appropriated commercial images (and events) and put them into very different contexts.  In doing so, I have also seen new characters, personalities and social constructs form from the aether of the creative process, and this is what most fascinates me. 


Darger's experience as an institutionalized orphan in Chicago[iv], and his empathic response to news items of brutalized children, led him to consider himself a "protector of children"[v].  Darger's intuitive connection between what he observed and what he imagined resulted in works that are psychologically potent and charged with enduring cultural relevance.  Filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky's definition of art and the artist well applies to Darger:  art expresses "man's need of harmony and his readiness to do battle with himself, within his own personality for the sake of achieving the equilibrium for which he longs."[vi]


Those who believe Henry Darger to be merely an "outsider artist" may be on the outside looking in.  To be sure, he worked outside of the commercial realm of the art world, but he may well have been a self-aware inhabitant of a sophisticated counter-culture.  Not a lot is known about Darger's life, but it is possible, as research suggests[vii], that Darger's imagery was the product both of observation and a broad multicultural knowledge of the representation of sexual personae (as opposed to the product of the simple, unhinged mind of an outsider-savant).  He was an avid reader. “Darger’s collection of literature included many famous examples of child adventurers from mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, including:  L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, and Oliver Twist, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,”[viii] quoted below:


Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten….Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so.  It was one of these regular summer storms.  It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest--fst!  It was as bright as glory, and you'd have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down-stairs….[ix]


Storms and tornadoes captivated him.  One imagines his encounters with tremendous storms during his escape from imprisonment in the Illinois Asylum For Feebleminded Children[x], when he walked 162 miles back to Chicago.  He wrote extensively about "the greatest tornado disaster of the age, which he named "Sweety Pie":


All Illinois was Joyful in the beauties of late summertime:  prosperity and progress were reigning.  Suddenly out of that cloud belly came the shock of the most violent tornado ever on record:  the destruction of Johnstontown, Gleason, Jena, and Ground Contour villages, the disappearance of most of the people and all on the Contour of grounds.  This terrible tornado disaster, which overwhelmed and wiped out six miles length of Ground Contour, among the most peaceful and beautiful landscapes in the world, and even here destroyed an unknown number of lives in almost an instant and injured many more badly and painfully, had about it certain unique features that justify special attention….  It had far more wallop than even a powerful atomic bomb.


It’s easy to imagine, given the length of his novels, that Darger’s writing was an every day activity.  His process was additive, rather than editorial.  But the diction of his prose could well be a response to the local color and colloquialism used by the authors he admired. 


Regardless of what one makes of his "outsider" and untrained status as an artist, Darger was an early responder to the industrial scale use of the most vulnerable members of society for mass-marketing campaigns, and used these images in illustrating his epic tales of the struggles of rebellious Christian child-slaves fighting against heathen adults.  His hopelessly unedited, endlessly vivid[xi] story of the Vivian Girls' war against evil had two alternate endings, one where the Girls, and (Catholicism) triumph, and one where the forces of evil triumph.  So the Vivian Girls must essentially grow up into a compromise.


The professional vision scrutinizes and analyzes, but in the end hopes to present a transcendent appreciation, a leap of aesthetic technology that seeks to communicate, to order, to celebrate, to unwind the mysteries of our sexual psychology, to unmask the lazy taking and encourage a mutual participation, a recognition of a broader persona. Vermeer triumphed over the inadequacy of a one-way gaze in "Girl With A Pearl Earring", a painting that truly looks back at the viewer.  Did Darger do something similar?  He certainly worked counter to those in the commercial mainstream of his contemporary culture (the heart of the 20th century).  Simone de Beauvoir writes, in, "Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome":


"Love can resist familiarity; eroticism cannot....the dream-merchants [solution:]....The adult woman now inhabits the same world as the man, but the child-woman moves in a universe which he cannot enter.  The age difference re-established between them the distance that seems necessary to desire.  At least that is what those who have created a new Eve by merging the 'green fruit' and 'femme fatale' types have pinned their hopes on....  The legend that has been built up around Brigitte Bardot by publicity has for a long time identified her with this childlike and disturbing character....  BB is a lost, pathetic child who needs a guide and protector."[xii]


Darger, working onshore from, but contemporary with these cultural currents is compelled to explore and remediate, through fantasy, not just the idea and presentation of the vulnerability of youth, but its reality.  He was responding to his own childhood and to current events, news items, and in using both true crime photos and advertisements he recognized the parallel between sociological events and commercial/cultural norms.  His presentations of precociousness are heroic as opposed to vixenish, and thereby counter the "dream merchants'" recurrent message.  The ambivalent finish of his novel reflects the ongoing and eternal struggle between the vulnerable and the powerful.  Darger's lifelong daily output was a continuum:  his playful early boyhood experimentation; his artistic training at the Asylum[xiii]; his increasingly sophisticated visual - and compulsive, naïve, poetic - means of making the world more right through the ongoing production of an empowering fantasy.


My conscious feelings towards my subject matter (professional runway and print models and the models of internet erotica) are ambivalent, and as I go deeper into my projects I find that I am compelled to think more deeply about the high and low worlds to which they are tangent.  Both types of model are sometimes presented with a kind of classical perfection, where the celebration of youth and beauty seems to approach the (aesthetic/erotic) ideal.  Contrary to contemporary Puritan belief, one mustn't feel guilty about appreciating and desiring beauty.


The morning commute is something of a forced march.  Still, faces sometimes triumph.  There was a beautiful woman, not stunning, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her.  She had a soft face with dark eyes and dark hair, a tranquil expression, I think capable of a sublimely tranquil expression under relaxed and private circumstances.  In glances, glances perhaps that approached and passed acceptable curiosity and recognition of another, I mulled the possibility of her beauty, the possibility of the sublimation of the shape and complexion of her face.  Her skin tone was rather light compared to the darkness of her hair and eyes, but the foundation of the sublime for her rested simply on geometry, the perfect geometry of a triangle of moles on her right cheek.  Each mole was the same size and shape, each a touch smaller than Marilyn’s, and all above that iconic mark:  the right-most just left and above the nostril, the top just at the tangent of the under-eye and upper curve of her cheek, the lowest by a little at the transition of the convex of her cheekbone and the concave formed by the top-left edge of her lip and the area containing a possible dimple (I didn’t see her smile).


Nor should young women be robbed of their earning potential.  Successful models, through their unique skill set, professionalism, and beauty, carve a professional niche that, for a few, is deservedly profitable.  And yet the participants, when they begin their careers, are almost universally very young.  They are generally selling their beauty, or using it to sell a product.  This speaks both to their special quality as beautiful people, and to the age-old economic reality of gender inequality (about which one ought to feel guilty).  To what are the worlds of haute couture and internet erotica tangent?  The greatest, most pure pleasure and beauty, and the most grotesque horrors of slavery, cruelty, power, control and murder.  The realm of Darger, and art, to be sure.

[i] Georges Braque,  Illustrated Notebooks 1917-1955  Dover Publications, New York.  1971.  Page 64

[ii] See Apuleius, The Golden Ass, p87, Yale University Press, 2011, Translated by Sarah Ruden

[iii] Mary Pickford's "Little Annie Rooney" was a favorite model for Darger's Vivian Girls (see Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy, Jim Elledge, Overlook Duckworth Press, NY, 2013, pp167-169), as was Shirley Temple, and he routinely collected images from cartoons and other mass media.  (see also Henry Darger, Disasters of War, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, ed. Klaus Biesenbach.  Page21 "He had quite a systematic approach to using and storing….newspapers and magazines")

[iv] "Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and course and strong and cunning….

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness."  "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems, Dover Publications, 1994, p1

[v] see Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy, Jim Elledge, Overlook Duckworth Press, NY, 2013, p318

[vi] Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1987.  Page 238

[vii] see Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy, Jim Elledge, Overlook Duckworth Press, NY, 2013, p 18, pp125 -149

[viii] Leisa Rundquist,  Pyre:  A Poetics of Fire and Childhood in the Art of Henry Darger

[ix] Mark Twain, "Huckleberry Finn", The Favorite Works of Mark Twain, Garden City Publishing Co, Inc, Garden City, NY, 1939.  Page 475

[x] See Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy, Jim Elledge, Overlook Duckworth Press, NY, 2013, pp 64-85 for a discussion on possible reasons for Henry's move from The Mission of Our Lady of Mercy to the Asylum, including a description of the turn-of-the century attitudes towards and treatments of "self abuse".


"Myself, I am the bad one, I am, I am that / promiscuous every five minutes for that I live on a farm on Mars.  Our hearts our hunger our very / red children our human pain."

From "Home Movies", Walking After Midnight, Bill Kushner, Spuyten Duyvil, New York,  2011.  Page 27

[xi] "In the middle of the court could be seen a beautiful but broken fountain whose marble basin was once fringed with a deep border of fragrant violet and whose water was once placid as crystal and alive with myriads of gold and silver fishes twinkling and darting through it like so many living jewels, but which was now choked with rubble and plaster."  Henry Darger, from The Realms of the Unreal, Chapter Sixty Three, Vol. A XII, p28b, excerpted in Henry Darger, Disasters of War, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, ed. Klaus Biesenbach.  Page199

[xii] London, 1962

[xiii] See Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy, Jim Elledge, Overlook Duckworth Press, NY, 2013, p 97