Thursday, June 9, 2011

Henry Darger

Henry Darger (from the album Motherland)

Who'll save the poor little girl?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who'll save the poor little girl?
o, Henry...

Who'll tell the story of her?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who'll tell it all to the world?
o, Henry...

Who'll buy the carbon paper now?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who'll trace the lines of her mouth?
o, Henry...

Who will conquer foreign worlds
searching for the stolen girls?

Princesses you'll never fear
the patron saint of girls is here!

Who will draw the calvary in
risk his very own precious skin
to make our Angelinia a free and peaceful land again?


Who'll love a poor orphan child?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Lost, growing savage and wild?
o, Henry
o, Henry
o, Henry

On a recent visit to Southern California, I made arrangements to visit a museum I had never been to before, the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art. I was supposed to go with someone to tour the museum, but at the last minute they had to cancel. I wasn't deterred, though. I'm an introvert of the highest order, one of those people who constantly bemoans my lack of alone time...with myself. I had never visited a museum completely alone before and I thought it seemed like an ideal activity to do solo. So off I went.

The first time I ever visited an art museum it was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (I know, way to start at the bottom and work your way up, right?) I was still a teenager and I was dragged there kicking and screaming. I wasn't interested too much in art back then. I anticipated a dreadfully boring afternoon, so I took along my portable CD player and headphones so that I would at least have something to keep my mind engaged. As you may have guessed, once I actually got to the museum, my attitude changed rather quickly, although the earphones stayed on my head all day. I can't really remember any specific painting or sculpture or anything else I saw that day. But I do remember being transfixed.

I cringe when I think of how little appreciation I had for that experience at the time. Even so, after that day, I began viewing art and houses of art with a little more reverence. Never since that visit to the Met have I gone into a museum with any electronic devices plugged into my ears. It seemed somehow...unholy. But when I went on my solo journey to the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art, I decided it might be fun to try taking in my art with a soundtrack once again. And what artist would I turn to in providing this soundtrack? I guess you already know.

It might surprise you to learn this, but I don't actually listen to Natalie Merchant's music all the time. I treat her music like some sort of aural dessert. Yes, it is the most delicious of all meals. But you have to earn it. And, hard though it is to believe, if you eat it all the time, it might start to lose its specialness. So I take my Natalie in measured doses. I earn it. And I take in her music when it can truly be appreciated, not at every sampler table in the grocery store of life.

But when I got to the museum and looked down at my ipod, I didn't hesitate before selecting my Natalie Merchant/10,000 Maniacs playlist. It just seemed right.

Unfortunately, things didn't work out as perfectly as I had anticipated. I've come to look at visiting museums as a sort of artistic form of speed dating. I dutifully go around to each presentation, spend a few minutes trying to establish what they are all about and how they make me feel, and ultimately I hope to leave with a feeling that I made a few meaningful connections. But it doesn't always work out that way. I enjoyed my trip to the museum and I did see some beautiful things...but there were no love connections. I took a few phone numbers, sure, but I have no intention of calling any of them. I was just being polite.

There were other problems too. I think the trouble started when I decided to use the "shuffle" option on my ipod. I hoped it would magically select songs that perfectly fit the mood of what I was looking at in a given moment. Somewhere around the time Scorpio Rising came on while I was looking at one artist's representation of the Last Supper, I came to the realization that I may have had made a terrible mistake.

I've been trying to decide ever since whether or not the whole idea of combining music with museum art was such a good idea. Maybe they are art forms that just shouldn't mingle. Eventually, it got me thinking about this week's song.

First off, a little background. Henry Darger was a writer and illustrator who was born in the late 1800s in Chicago, USA. He was not a celebrated artist during his lifetime. He worked the same job most of his life, as a hospital janitor. It wasn't until after he died that his prodigious collection began to be fully discovered.

Between 1910 and 1921 Darger wrote a novel that is generally referred to as In the Realms of the Unreal, although the full title is close to 40 words long. A fitting title, in fact, for a book that was over 15,000 pages in length. (And I get stressed about a weekly updated blog!) After he wrote the text, he spent the remaining years of his life illustrating his novel.

Henry appears to have been a somewhat troubled man. As a teenager, he spent time in an asylum for mentally ill children. He was apparently something of an obsessive-compulsive person, hoarding all manner of items, including newspaper clippings. He was also a very sensitive man, who was particularly passionate about the protection of abused children. His complex nature and wild vision are clearly evidenced in the works he created. The lyrics to Henry Darger reference his frequent portrayal of little girls, angelic in nature, placed in dangerous, often brutal backdrops.

Natalie clearly has a profound appreciation for Henry's work. Here are some of her thoughts on Henry Darger, the man:

"I saw my first Henry Darger collage/paintings in the early 1980's when the tale of Henry's life was an oral tradition new born. Taken out of context the seven little horrified girls pursued by a purple and orange winged cat was so odd. I was instantly curious to see more. The search for evidence of Henry Darger was difficult, brief mentions in surveys of outsider artists. A retrospective of his work appeared years later at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Henry's manual typewriter was on display along with large-scale painted scrolls of the Vivian Girls, the objects seemed like holy relics to me."*

"He would go to church sometimes four times a day. And he collected twine, that was his guilty passion - there were about 500 balls of twine in his house. He wrote a diary, and the entries would go, `Worked on ball of twine. Twine tangled, threatened to throw at holy image but did not, I am a sorry saint. Attended mass. Found more twine. Worked on book.' And that was his day, every day of his life."**

Her thoughts on Henry Darger, the song:

"Henry Darger is definitely one of those songs that transports you. I was trying to transport people to the world that I've visited through being a fan of Henry Darger's paintings. I wanted to try to find a way to represent that musically."***

"Transportive" is a good word to describe Henry Darger. It's very unique, both from the rest of the music on Motherland, and from Natalie's music in general, especially up to the point in time this song was released. She sings in a high octave, something she does seldomly but to great effect in this song (and more recently on The King of China's Daughter.)

While Henry Darger, with its lush orchestration and soothing melody, might sound like a more natural fit on an album like Ophelia, I like its placement on Motherland. I've always thought of Motherland as Natalie's most intense, most aggressive album. The gentleness of Henry Darger seems all the more poignant when placed in the middle of an album that features some of Natalie's most remonstrative songs.

I'm still thinking about whether or not museums and music are a good match. I haven't really come to a conclusion yet. I guess some more experimenting will be necessary. But I can promise you this much: If I ever get to visit a museum that features Henry Darger's works, and I surely hope I'll be able to someday, I will definitely do it with my headphones on. But instead of "shuffle", I think I'll just find Henry's name and press "repeat."

Thanks for reading this week's post. Some homework for you: Can you name any songs written about famous (or not-so-famous) artists? Send responses to or submit them in the comments section below. See you next week!

Download Henry Darger at Itunes - The Ballad of Henry Darger - Motherland

*Elektra Website, 2002
**The Independent, 2002
***Borders Magazine, 2002


  1. One of the things I like about Natalie is that you, as a listener, learn new things all the time. I didn't know who Henry Darger was before this song. A while back I looked up his paintings, and they are sublimed. It helped me appreciate this song more.

    As for your question... I can't think of one in English (a few in Spanish, though).

  2. Vertigo -

    Yeah, I had never heard of Henry Darger either. I love when music introduces me to something (or someone) I never knew before. I'll accept Spanish songs, by the way. : )