Eugene Von Bruenchenhein


Eugene Von Bruenchenhein

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) was a visionary artist who created a vast number of paintings, sculpture and photographs that overfilled his modest house in Milwaukee, a collection undiscovered until shortly after his death. Born in Marinette, Wisconsin, Von Bruenchenhein's mother died when he was seven. His father, a sign painter and shopkeeper, later married a woman who was a teacher and published treatises on evolution, believed in reincarnation and painted floral compositions. Although he did not finish high school, Von Bruenchenhein continued to study botany and history, wrote extensively on his own metaphysical theories of biological and cosmological origins and the primal genesis of a genetically encoded collective knowledge. He also composed reams of poetry on nature and love, wrote imaginary tales of travel through time and space, and believed that he and Marie had descended from royalty.

For a time, Eugene worked at a bakery during the day, and in the evenings he privately made his art in virtual isolation. Von Bruenchenhein's prolific work crammed every corner, closet and cabinet of his house turned castle, where nearly everything was available to be exploited by his ambitious creative energies. He rendered paintings on cardboard and Masonite and decorated the surfaces of furniture, ceilings, walls, doors and windows throughout his home. He constructed towers and miniature thrones from dried chicken bones and model airplane glue. Ceramic crowns, vases and floral structures were formed from hand-dug clay and fired in the stove. Concrete was poured upon plastic bags in his driveway to make large scale heads which he painted and positioned around the exterior of his home. Eventually, he ceased producing these heads when the lime from the concrete severely burned his hands. However, his first artistic obsession in the 1940s was photographing his wife and model, “Marie.”

In 1939 Von Bruenchenhein met Eveline Kalke, whom he nicknamed "Marie," at a state fair in Wisconsin. They were married in 1943. Marie was his muse, and they collaborated in staging hundreds of provocative, yet playful, pinup-like photographs. Costumed in handmade bikinis, heavy heels, stockings and adorned in swags of plastic pearl necklaces, she posed in front of backdrops created from floral curtains or chenille bedspreads. Occasionally she wore a crown fashioned from a coffee can adorned with Christmas tree ornaments, which she wears with strapless gowns that loosen during the photo session to become topless portraits.

Von Bruenchenhein's resourcefulness played a central part in both the assembling and the effect: a luxurious setting in their living room fashioned from five-and-dime supplies. These intimate vignettes exemplify a subject/object dynamic, where Marie is immortalized while he occupied the part of voyeur. When seen together as a series, her response to his approach becomes a visual narrative. Acting as a model and taking on the roles of queen, Hollywood star, seductress and ingénue, she explores her own place in this work, often defining the look of an image through a glance or a smile.

Von Bruenchenhein’s work is included in the permanent collections of:

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California
The American Folk Art Museum, New York
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania
New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Illinois
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri
Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin