Princesses of the Christian land of Abbieannia, The Vivian Girls band together and battle against the varied monsters of child enslavement, often succumbing to torture and death. This was one of artist Henry Darger’s worlds, in art, and in words. Known as one of the preeminent outsider artists, Darger presented the struggle of youth, a reflection of his own traumatic childhood, and mostly isolated adulthood. In 2003, French electronic musician, producer and composer Philippe Cohen Solal first came face-to-face with Darger’s work at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, and was reintroduced to the artist again in 2006 during exhibition at La Maison Rouge (The Red House) in Paris, the first Darger exhibition in France.
“I was really blown away,” says Solal. “It was a visual shock and I directly fell in love with his art, even though I didn’t know anything about him. When I left the exhibition, I was really inspired by what I saw, not only the visual, but all the words which were written on the paintings themselves, on the collages and in the art.”
Reconnecting with Kiyoko Lerner—Darger’s former landlord, who unearthed his art and other works with her husband, photographer Nathan Lerner—after Darger passed away in 1973, Solal visited her in Chicago. At the time, Lerner was still living in the house attached to the one where Darger lived on Webster Avenue, where she shared more of the artist’s collection with Solal.
Initially conceptualizing a project around children’s music for adults or something relevant to Darger’s recurrent child-like perspective, after learning that the artist also wrote completed songs, Solal decided he would put them to music. Switching gears into something more experiemental, in 2015 Solal began collaborating with Mike Lindsay of the folk group Tunng, crafting arrangements around Darger’s lost songs on Outsider (¡Ya Basta! Records), which was released April 12, also marking the day Darger was born in 1893.
“Henry’s work is so special, and even after so many years of working on the project I still don’t have all the clues,” says Solal. “It’s still a mystery. There are so many mysterious layers in his art, in his books and in his words. I continue to understand, or try to understand, his world.”