A Henry Darger dispute: who inherits the rights to a loner’s genie?
When janitor-turned-artist Henry Darger died in Chicago at age 81 in 1973, leaving a single room filled with his colorful illustrations, a 15,000-page book, and no immediate surviving relatives, the Darger owner began showing, sharing, and sell his work.
For decades, owners Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner have been credited with rescuing Darger’s designs from the junk heap and promoting them in a way that earned Darger an international reputation as a foreign artist. .
“Most landlords would have been, ‘Let’s rent the room, let’s take out the dumpster,'” said Andrew Edlin, one of Darger’s top dealers. “Nathan Lerner spent 25 years protecting his legacy. Without him, we would never know about Darger.
But now distant relatives of Darger – tracked down by a collector of vintage photographs – are claiming that legacy legally, saying the owner had no right to pick and profit from Darger’s art. They filed a “petition to determine inheritance” in an Illinois probate court last month; a hearing in Cook County is scheduled for February 23.
“We affirm the rights of the family – taking all necessary steps to restore their legacy,” said Christen Sadowski, a relative of Darger. “To understand that someone took what was their life’s work and profited from it, it’s about righting a wrong.”
The dispute draws attention to how legacies and copyrights are handled after the deaths of artists who lived largely solitary lives. In this case, a 2019 article in a Northwestern University law journal asked whether under Illinois and federal law the owners were right to assume the rights.
But the owners, Lerner, a photographer who died in 1997, and his wife, Kiyoko, a classical pianist, have long said Darger made it clear he didn’t care whether they kept his work or threw it away.
Kiyoko Lerner did not respond to messages. His attorney, Eric E. Kalnins, said in an email that he and his client are reviewing the probate paperwork and “have no comment at this time.”
Darger, totally unknown during his lifetime, attracted attention after his death due to the reach of his imagination, which created, through images and words, fantastical worlds far removed from the tedious routines of his daily life.
Prized for the ambitions of his outsider or self-taught art, his work is part of the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the American Folk Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian. One of his illustrations on paper sold for $745,076 at Christie’s Paris in 2014.
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“Darger was a genius,” said Michael Bonesteel, editor of “Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings,” published by Rizzoli in 2000. “He was quite possibly the greatest foreign artist in America.”
Born in 1892, Darger had a difficult childhood; his mother died when he was four years old. When he was eight years old, his father put him in an orphanage before going to a poor house himself because of an injury. At age 12, Darger was transferred to the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children from which he made three escape attempts, finally succeeding at the age of 17.
He worked as a hospital attendant in Chicago and became known as a hermit who muttered so loudly that people on the other side of the doors thought he had visitors.
In a 2004 documentary about Darger, “In the Realms of the Unreal”, Kiyoko Lerner described him as “reclusive”.
“He didn’t want to talk to anyone and he didn’t want anyone to talk to him,” she says in the film, adding that “he read the morning and evening papers and rummaged through the trash” and that “he never talked about anything”. but time – never.
It wasn’t until Darger moved into a nursing home a year before his death that Nathan Lerner and a neighbor, David Berglund, went to empty his room and discovered hundreds of watercolor, pencil, and ink drawings. gluing and carbon, most sewn. in three enormous “albums”, as well as seven hand-bound typewritten books.
His scenes were both whimsical and violent – little girls with penises; children eviscerated, crucified and disemboweled. To understand these images, one must read Darger’s voluminous writings, Bonesteel said, and learn about his early life.
“He was most likely sexually abused in those institutions and the adults really became his enemy throughout his childhood because they just betrayed him,” Bonesteel said.
“The artwork without the writings is only half the story,” added Bonesteel, who in 1985 wrote an article on Darger – “Chicago Original” – for Art in America which introduced him. in the wider art world.
Chief among them was Darger’s 15,000-page graphic novel with an equally long title – “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandic-Angeline Warstorm, caused by the rebellion of child slaves”. The novel describes an epic war between the innocent children of Abbieannia and the violent adults of Glandelinia.
The Vivian sisters, daughters of the Abbian Emperor, valiantly attempt — with the help of Captain Henry Darger — to rescue the children threatened by the adult troops.
In a panel, in the middle of flying objects, young girls flee from adults trying to strangle them; in another, children find refuge from a roaring tornado.
“Darger is almost like a Homeric figure,” said Edlin, owner of the Outsider Art Fair. “Not only are the artworks phenomenal and inventive, but it’s an epic tale he’s made up. It’s battle after battle, good versus evil, Vivians versus Glandelinians. And it’s d “All the more poignant as Darger himself is known to have had such a destitute life. It is often said that he was trying to vindicate his own innocence.
The Lerners brought the work to the attention of photography collector, Ruth Horwich, patron of the Hyde Park Art Center, where it helped propel Darger’s first exhibition in 1977.
Contemporary collectors became familiar with Darger’s work through the “Disasters of War” exhibition at MoMA PS 1 in 2001, which also featured Francisco de Goya as well as Jake and Dinos Chapman.
In 2008, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago opened a permanent exhibition focusing on the content of Darger’s living and working space.
Perhaps the largest collection of Darger’s work belongs to James Brett, who in 2009 established the Museum of Everything, a traveling exhibition of self-taught artists.
In 2010, the American Folk Art Museum showed “The Private Collection of Henry Darger”, including several pieces that were donated to the museum by Kiyoko Lerner.
These days, Darger’s works privately sell for up to $800,000. Additionally, several artists continue to draw inspiration from him, including musician David Byrne, who has described Darger’s work as “a perfect mythical narrative — mythical in the sense of touching a deep reaction within us, non-mythical in the sense of the work or his life being false.
Darger’s parents – mostly first cousins two or three times apart – were recently tracked down by Ron Slattery, who also helped uncover the work of Vivian Maier, a nanny and street photographer whose estate was also disputed by family members and has yet to be found. establish yourself.
Slattery, a Chicago collector, strongly believes that artists’ estates should be managed by their legal descendants. “After all the research, it seemed like the right thing to do,” Slattery said. “How can you let this sit there?”
Slattery brought to the attention of the Darger family a 2019 article by Elyssa Westby, an attorney, in the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property that questioned the rights to the Darger estate.
Titled “Henry Darger’s ‘Realms of The Unreal’ – But Who in The Realm Is Kiyoko Lerner?”, the article read “Lerner’s copyright title is questionable” under federal copyright law. author and the State of Illinois probate code.
The article argues that the transfer of the documents to the Lerners was complicated by possible issues regarding Darger’s mental state; by conflicting remarks he made about throwing away all his work and by the fact that even if the tangible asset had been transferred, the underlying copyrights would not necessarily have been transferred as well.
“Even if it were assumed that there were no heirs or that the heirs located would have been entirely disinterested,” writes Westby, “there is still a chain of succession which bequeaths the estate and the copyright from Darger to Illinois”.
Whether Darger was close to his cousins and aunts, Westby added, is largely irrelevant, given that “courts have interpreted inheritance statutes without regard to ‘feelings of kinship'” .
With the help of HeirSearch, a forensic genealogy research company, family members have identified 50 descendants of Darger who are named in probate papers. “For us, it’s always been about family,” Sadowski said, adding that the family is united and feels it’s important to stand up for one of their own, even if they don’t know him personally.
Edlin, the dealer, however, said no one should lose sight of the fact that Kiyoko Lerner has shown “a lot of respect and reverence for the job”.
Similarly, Bonesteel said, “I always felt that Kiyoko’s ownership of the Darger material could very easily be challenged. But instead of someone else being there to claim it, I guess she has every right to claim it.
“It rubs me the wrong way when descendants over two or three generations decide to cash in – it’s just a greedy thing and I find it really unpleasant,” he added. “Kiyoko and Nathan did a great job. That doesn’t mean they haven’t made money on the job. In a way, they deserve to earn money because they made the effort to save it for posterity.