Eugene Von Bruenchenhein

September 10 – October 24, 2004

Press Release

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) was a visionary artist who created a vast number of paintings, photographs and sculptural objects that overfilled his modest house in Milwaukee, a collection undiscovered until shortly after his death. He worked at a bakery during the day and privately made his obsessive art in virtual isolation, with the exception of his wife, Marie, and select relatives and friends.

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 at one time was a teacher, and who published treatises on evolution, believed in reincarnation, and painted floral still lifes. Although he did not finish high school, Von Bruenchenhein became fascinated with botany and science, and wrote extensively on his own metaphysical theories of biological and cosmological origins, as well as the primal genesis of a genetically encoded collective knowledge. He also composed reams of poetry on nature, love, war and politics, and imaginary travels through time and space.

Von Bruenchenhein's prolific work crammed every corner, closet and cabinet of his house, where nearly everything was available to be exploited by his ambitious creative energies. He rendered paintings on cardboard and Masonite, in addition to furniture, ceilings, walls, doors and windows. He developed photographs in the sink. He erected sculptures from TV dinner chicken bones and model airplane glue. Ceramics were formed from hand-dug clay and fired in the parlor stove. Poems and philosophical writings littered the home, as though no thought would be lost for lack of a proper writing surface or instrument. Reel-to-reel tapes that recorded continuous conversations and background music serve to chronicle an everyman's everyday approach to art.

In 1939 Von Bruenchenhein met Eveline Kalke, "Marie," at a state fair in Wisconsin, and they were married in 1943. Marie was his muse, and they collaborated in staging hundreds of passionate and provocative, yet playful and loving, pinup-like photographs and slides of Marie. Costumed in drapery, bikinis, stockings and heavy heels, and adorned in swags of multiple pearl necklaces and homemade tin crowns, she posed seminude in front of chenille bedspreads and floral patterned backdrops. Von Bruenchenhein's resourcefulness played a central part in both the assembling and the effect: a luxurious setting fashioned from five-and-dime supplies. Their relationship found a sort of sideshow glamour in his carefully considered, and often erotic photographs. 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 goddess, queen, 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. 

In 1954 Von Bruenchenhein began making intricate, brightly colored and spontaneously created surrealistic "finger paintings" of atomic mushrooms, radiating hearts, mythical sea creatures, serpent monsters, phantasmal landscapes, shooting comets and futuristic metropolises. He manipulated the paint with acute facility, using his fingers, sticks, straw, and brushes made from Marie's hair, to achieve amazing spatial effects. His paintings reflect the desire to see magnified that which can be both beautiful and horrific. These visions of mysterious life-forms, cosmic forces and dreamlike places were typically executed in one intuitive, possessed and intensely frenzied session. He, in fact, believed that his art was the result of "unknown forces at work…forces that have gone on since the beginning."

Von Bruenchenhein also made many organic vase-shaped ceramic sculptures and life-size crowns with flower, leaf and bud motifs. In the 1960s and 1970s he made sculptures of miniature chairs and thrones constructed out of dried chicken bones, as well as delicate architectural spires or towers of up to five feet high. 

Seemingly living an ordinary life, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was an extraordinary artist whose eccentric imagination and enigmatic expressions give us insight into both a world of his own and worlds unknown.

- Caelan Mys

The works of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein are represented in numerous museum collections, including: American Folk Art Museum, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; John M. Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Milwaukee Art Museum; New Orleans Museum of Art; Newark Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.