Recluse janitor Henry Darger spent more than 40 years in a small one-room apartment in Lincoln Park, writing, painting, sketching, collecting and imagining.
Until after his death in 1973, his works, discovered by their landlords, trickled onto Chicago’s art scene, with their fictional stories and sometimes-violent imagery eventually garnering worldwide acclaim—and skyrocketing prices.
Now, nearly half a century later, the ongoing legal battle over the rights to Darger’s inheritance has moved to federal court in Chicago, where a lawsuit was filed this week accusing landlords of copyright infringement by his estate.
The lawsuit, filed in US District Court on Wednesday, names the estate of Kiyoko Lerner as well as her husband, Nathan, who rented the third-floor room of their walk-up from West Webster Avenue to Darger in the early 1930s was.
According to the suit, the Learners have been illegally profiting from Darger’s works for nearly five decades, including his 15,000-page illustrated manuscript “In the Realms of the Unreal,” although there are no claims as to heirs. Nathan Lerner, a photographer and industrial designer who first promoted Darger’s work, died in 1997.
The lawsuit comes six months after several of Darger’s alleged relatives, all first cousins removed multiple times, file an action in Cook County Probate Court, seeking to declare his estate as heirs. Is. That lawsuit is still pending.
Learners have long said that Darger was clear before his death that he didn’t care what happened to his work. An attorney representing Kiyoko Lerner in the probate case did not return calls seeking comment.
Darger’s back story as a lonely and unknown artist who skyrocketed to posthumous fame resembles that of Vivian Meier, a Chicago-area nanny, after discovering her abandoned images in an old storage locker. She became one of the most admired street photographers in the world.
In Darger’s case, Maier, who died in 2009, was a pack rat and a recluse who never in his lifetime sought to have his work published. But Maier’s accidental discovery of thousands of negatives sparked a tumultuous legal dispute over his suddenly lucrative estate, including an exhaustive search for a rightful heir.
The Cook County public administrator took Meier’s cases into his own hands and filed a similar copyright lawsuit at the Dirkson US Courthouse against those who had taken advantage of the photographs.
Meanwhile, the copyright fight over Darger’s property has ties to the same Chicago collector, Ron Slattery, who was one of the first to purchase Meyer’s photo negatives. Slattery told The New York Times in February That they took it upon themselves to track down some of Dargar’s relatives and show them a 2019 article in the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property questioning the rights to the Dargar estate.
“After all the research it just seemed like the right thing to do,” Slattery told the Times. “How can you let it sit there?”
Slattery did not return calls seeking comment on Friday.
By now, the story of Darger’s unprecedented rise to world fame is well known. Having been born in Chicago in 1892, when he was 4 years old, his mother died. His father, a tailor, was battling health issues. After Darger had behavioral problems at school, he was known as an Illinois refuge for weak-minded children in Downstate Lincoln.
Darger later incorporated many of his experiences in the asylum, including children being victims of forced child labor and severe punishment, into his art. After his father’s death in 1908, Darger fled the facility and moved 160 miles back to Chicago, where he found work as a conservator at a Catholic hospital. This would remain his profession for the next 50 years, apart from a brief stint in the military during World War I.
In 1930, Darger began renting a large, third-floor room in a brick house at 851 W. Webster Avenue. He had been living there for nearly 30 years when Nathan Lerner purchased the building in the late 1950s. In the 2004 documentary “The Realms of the Unreal”, Kiyoko Lerner and others who had contact with Darger in his later years remembered him as cool and silly, in many ways detached from reality but not dangerous.
According to the documentary, he was obsessed with the weather and was a great reader of newspapers and magazines. He wore the same threadbare army coat and could often be seen wandering the streets near the apartment, looking for collectibles in the trash. At night, when he returned home from work, neighbors could hear sounds from his room, as if a large group of people were having a loud discussion. It was Dargar, immersed in his own world, talking to himself.
In the mid-1960s, after he was forced to quit his job due to declining health, Darger had been spending almost his entire life in the room. There, she continued to work on her life’s work, the fictional story of the Vivian Girls, seven Christian princesses who became involved in a bloody rebellion against child slaves. The work, which eventually fills about 15,145 typed pages, is illustrated with hundreds of painted scenes, sketches and stencils, featuring serene landscapes and mysterious creatures, as well as terrifying images of young children being tortured and murdered. Is.
In early 1973, Darger was too ill to be alone and was transferred to St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged, the same institution where his father had died. They couldn’t believe their eyes when the learners and some neighbors went into his room to clean his stuff.
“I remember climbing that narrow staircase and entering an entirely new world,” Lynn Warren, a neighbor and art student, told the Tribune in 2000. “I really felt like I had stepped into Henry’s mind.”
Resting on an iron bed there were sections that formed “in the realm of untruth”. Also included were Darger’s detailed memoirs, a carefully kept weather magazine, and decades-old newspaper clippings and missing or killed children glued to the wall.
“We were stunned,” Kiyoko Lerner told the Tribune. “We didn’t know what to make of it.”
David Berglund, a tenant in the building, said he remembered visiting Darger at the hospital before he died and admiring the work of his old neighbor.
“He looked at me like I sucker-punched him,” recalled Berglund. “He looked at me and said, ‘It’s too late now. It’s from Mr. Lerner.'”
Darger died on April 13, 1973. He is buried at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, where his headstone is inscribed “protector of the children”.
Nathan Lerner saw potential in Darger’s work and used his connections to Chicago’s art world to try to spark interest. He patronized Darger’s room and invited artists and students to dive into the dense and mysterious creations.
Four years after Darger’s death, his work was first shown at a show at the Hyde Park Art Center, but did not gain international acclaim until the 1990s with a show at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Since then, Darger has been recognized as one of the world’s leading “outsider” artists, and his work has inspired poems, an opera, even a rock band called the Vivian Girls.
With notoriety, of course, came the inevitable dollar signs, and Darger’s works, especially illustrations, began to fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at art house auctions.
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The value continues to this day. According to the lawsuit, Christie’s auction house estimated the sale price for a page from “In the Realms of the Unreal” to be between $200,000 and $400,000. The painting sold for $675,000.
The lawsuit alleges that over the years, Learners have made “tens of millions of dollars from unauthorized exploitation of Darjar’s works.”
But if learners are found to be in violation of the law, how much can be recovered for Darger’s assets – and who will share the proceeds – still paints a very murky picture. In Cook County Probate Court, Judge Kent Delgado has given petitioners an extension to prove their claim as Darger’s rightful heir, which can be a lengthy process.
Meanwhile, many of the contents of Darger’s old room on West Webster Avenue, which was preserved by the Learners, are now on display at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art on Chicago’s Near West Side.
But the room itself is long gone. Back in 2000, Kiyoko Lerner’s stepson, Michael, told the Tribune that he was rehabbing the building, with Darger’s room serving as the master suite.
The building sold for $2 million in 2006, records show.