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ART Event looks at gender mysteries in artist Henry Darger's works
by Liz Baudler
2017-07-12

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Concurrent with its Henry Darger exhibit, "Betwixt and Between," coming to a close, Intuit: The Center For Intuitive and Outside Art has hosted a spate of events exploring gender identity in Darger's work.

Darger was a Chicago-based artist who wrote and illustrated a lengthy manuscript about the adventures of a group of young girls, The Vivian Girls. The illustrations get scholar's attention. Darger traced pre-adolescent girls from advertisements and stuck them in fields of fantastical flowers, battle scenes, religious classrooms...and often depicted them nude with rudimentary penises. On July 1, Intuit invited guest curator Leisa Rundquist to share some of her research into Darger's mystery.

"I look for patterns in his work, a sense of internal logic," Rundquist said about her approach to Darger. She commented that while Darger is considered an outsider artist, outsider artists are often considered "immune to culture."

"I don't think he's immune to culture at all," Rundquist said, citing the Little Eva character from Uncle Tom's Cabin and Shirley Temple as emblematic inspirations for Darger's girls.

Temple's movies were a huge cultural touchstone in the 1930s, and spoke to views of innocence at the time. "White little girls transformed adults for the better, as long as men saw them as cute," Rundquist explained, pointing out that childhood innocence used to be "impervious" to adult sexuality. It was only after Freudian theory went mainstream in the 1940s that movies like Temple's became more suspect to modern eyes, she said.

Darger's taste in media and Catholicism may have had an interesting impact on the Vivian Girl's gender ambiguity. He was a fan of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, and Rundquist highlighted a an Oz storyline where a little boy has to turn into a princess in order to save the kingdom. She also noted that Darger was a devotee of a saint who called herself "the daughter of Joan of Arc," a figure who not only figured prominently in WWI propaganda, but is often tied to martyrdom and gender ambiguity. Joan of Arc imagery shows up in some of Darger's illustrations.

Rundquist explained that early Christian mythology often showed women gaining male characteristics when they achieved "Christlike fortitude." She offered examples of St. Wilgefortis, a 10-year-old who grew a beard when she heard she was arranged to be married, and St. Vivia Perpetua, who dreamed that she turned into a man the night before she was martyred. Rundquist sees Vivia Perpetua as the Vivian Girls' possible namesake. She noted that the girls, who Darger constantly claims are not dead despite suffering horrible trauma, are often depicted without clothes and with penises when active or in danger. But she also noted that Darger did not find the girls odd, describing them as both beautiful and beloved. "Nothing in the writing makes them sound different," Rundquist said.

To quell speculation about Darger's motives, Rundquist offered more examples of historical media's depiction childhood innocence, including an article depicting a topless three-year-old girl from a Chicago newspaper, and the infamous Coppertone ad where a puppy pulls down a little girl's underwear. Rundquist described the latter as a "slippage of erotica." While people often focus on Darger's collections of this material—he had twenty copies of this ad alone—Rundquist disputes the idea that it was necessarily his private erotica. "It's mainstream erotica," she said. "It's part of our culture."

Not only did Darger trace ads, ads educated him; for instance, he consistently depicted the Vivans in above the knee styles to indicate their pre-adolescent age. Rundquist showed tracings of shoes and socks that Darger seemed to focus on intensely. Though Darger's world was fantastic, Rundquist sees his attention to clothing as grounding. "He tried to make things realistic as possible to make them believable," she said.

The audience was curious about Darger's personal life, including whether he might have been queer or trans. Rundquist said while that was a current focus of research, Darger "was really reticent to say much about himself." Still, Rundquist found it amazing that someone in the 20s or 30s would have "unapologetically" created artwork along these lines. And she praised Darger's ability as a storyteller, pointing out that his work was originally illustrations for his massive novel.

"This is where we're at in Darger's work," Rundquist said, referring to the exhibit's title, "Betwixt and Between," from a JM Barrie quote about his own child creation, Peter Pan. "We kind of like it, but we might be apprehensive about looking at it too much."


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