If the artist and writer Henry Darger had superpowers like the characters in his artworks, he might have lived to see his 125th birthday: April 12, 2017.
Though Darger passed away at the age of 81 in 1973, a frail and penniless man, he would posthumously become one of the most celebrated outsider artists in the world. And the unlikely protagonists that he created live on in his fantastical writing and drawings. Their powers: the strength of gods, the goodness of saints, and the ability to shift fluidly from one gender to another.
Darger’s “Vivian Girls,” as they are known, are the enslaved but resilient child protagonists of his 15,000-page illustrated epic “The Realms of the Unreal.” They look like the angelic young girls of the magazines and media from Darger’s day, except he often rendered them with penises.
Today, from our more gender-fluid point of view, they might be considered the earliest transgender superheroes—a perspective that’s explored in an exhibition titled “Betwixt and Between: Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls” at the Intuit, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.
Darger was born in the Windy City in 1892, lost his mother not long after, and in short order was sent to an orphanage and then to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. There, though he felt that he “knew more than the whole shebang in that place,” as he later wrote in his autobiography, he was subjected to a range of abuses: physical, emotional, and likely sexual.
But he escaped the institution at the age of 17, walking some 200 miles from Decatur, Illinois, back to Chicago. He landed a position as a janitor at a Catholic hospital and for the rest of his life he’d move between menial jobs, attend Catholic mass three to four times a day, and make himself scarce around other people.
In a small boarding-house apartment where he lived for 40 years, however, Darger created a world where he felt safe and strong. Over time, he lived increasingly in the pages of “The Realms of the Unreal,” where the Vivian Girls fought to overthrow the evil Glandelinians—a band of grown men who wore Confederate uniforms and bore names like General Pugnose and Lord Lechery.
Darger wrote and illustrated himself into the story, too, as the benevolent general on the children’s side, helping them wage their war for freedom.
In Darger’s tale, the army of small, sweet children are also strong. More curious, though, is their ability to embody a “spectrum of gender, as opposed to just one,” as Darger scholar and curator of “Betwixt and Between” Leisa Rundquist explains. Upon close study of the artist’s work, Rundquist discovered that this fluidity is portrayed as an empowering force for the children.
Henry Darger, Statues strangling children, 1910-1970. © Eric Emo / Musée d'Art Moderne / Roger-Viollet © 2015 Kiyoko Lerner / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris.
Several large, complex drawings that will appear in the exhibition support this thesis. They show the Vivian Girls and their child compatriots playing in ethereal landscapes. In these happy environments, they’re clothed in pretty frocks and flanked by a profusion of flowers. In other paintings showing the protagonists at war, in peril, or in the throes of negotiation, though, Darger often renders them naked and with small phalluses.
“Darger only shows this metamorphoses in moments of action, when the Vivian Girls need strength,” says Rundquist. “I thought there had to be a reason for that.”
Rundquist’s scholarship has long focused on Darger’s relationship with and views about gender and the way in which these manifest in his work. And she’s uncovered several touchstones that Darger might have referenced in developing his intersexed characters.
Darger read voraciously and had favorite books that informed his concepts of good and evil. Along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the works of Charles Dickens, he also often referenced the “Wizard of Oz” series and the Bible in his diaries. Both of the latter books, Rundquist posits, might provide clues.
Henry Darger, Untitled (three studies), Mid-twentieth century, Graphite on found paper, 7 x 5 ½”; 8 x 11”; 10 ½” x 6”; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, gifts of Kiyoko Lerner, 2003.7.45a-c. Photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy of American Folk Art Museum. © Kiyoko Lerner.
In The Marvelous Land of Oz, the protagonist Tip discovers that he was transformed into a boy by an evil sorceress when he was young. At the end of the tale, the spell is righted and Tip turns back into a girl, in turn reclaiming her rightful throne as the princess of Oz.
Christian texts also tell a tale of magical gender transformation. The female saint Vibia Perpetua has a vision in which she metamorphoses into a male gladiator, a state in which she martyrs herself. The name Vibia, as Rundquist points out, also happens to be a version of “Vivan,” both meaning eternal light.
But even without identifying these cultural references, one can speculate about why Darger might have equated gender fluidity with strength. “It shows the process of transformation,” Rundquist says. “And at its core, transformation is a form of vitality. We equate it to renewal and to resilience.”
While we will never know exactly why Darger bestowed his heroes with a radical gender fluidity, we can easily surmise from his work that he believed, even as a devout Catholic, that this quality was virtuous, redeeming, and powerful—one that would ultimately quash the evil, bigoted Glandelinians of the world.
A previous version of this article used the term “transsexual” in referencing the Vivian Girls’ gender fluidity. The correct term that should have been used was “transgender.”