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Eugene Von Bruenchenhein

American, 20th century.
Born 1910, Marinette, Wisconsin; died 1983, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was born July 31, 1910 in Marinette, Wisconsin, the second of three sons by Edwin and Clara Von Bruenchenhein. Within a few years, the family moved to Green Bay and eventually settled in Milwaukee where Eugene's father worked as a sign painter. Von Bruenchenhein's mother died in 1917, when he was seven and his father later married Elizabeth "Bessie" Mosely, a former schoolteacher who in 1926 authored a pamphlet entitled, "Evolution: The Law of Progress Based on Truth", along with several other treatises on evolution and reincarnation. She also painted floral still lifes and proved to be a strong influence on young Eugene who regarded her as a mentor until her death in 1938.

Although he did not finish high school, Von Bruenchenhein was an avid student of botany and history and wrote extensively on his own metaphysical theories of biological and cosmological origins. He also composed poems on nature, love, and time travel. For a time, Von Bruenchenhein worked at a bakery during the day, and in the evenings he privately made his art which occupied every corner of his modest home. He painted fantastical landscapes, structures, and creatures on cardboard and Masonite but also decorated ceilings, walls, doors and windows throughout his home. He constructed miniature thrones and towers from dried chicken bones and model airplane glue. Ceramic crowns, vases, and floral elements were formed from hand-dug clay and fired in the stove. Concrete was poured onto plastic bags in his driveway to make large heads which he painted and positioned around the exterior of his home. Von Bruenchenhein is best known, however, for his photographs, including hundreds of portraits of his wife, Marie, in exotic costumes and settings. 

In 1939, Von Bruenchenhein met a 19-year-old girl named Eveline Kalke, whom he nicknamed "Marie," at a state fair in Wisconsin. Four years later they married and Marie became the artist’s muse, collaborating in the staging of hundreds of provocative pinup-like photographs. Costumed in handmade bikinis, heavy heels, stockings and adorned in swags of plastic pearl necklaces, she posed in front of backdrops fashioned 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 died on January 24, 1983 at the age of 72 from congestive heart failure. Shortly afterwards, Daniel Nycz, a West Allis policeman who had befriended the artist years earlier, contacted Russell Bowman, then chief curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum, in the hope that some of Von Bruenchenhein's artistic creations could be sold in order to provide for Eugene's impoverished widow, Marie. Bowman in turn called Ruth Kohler, director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which was known for preserving the work of outsider artists. In September 1983, all of Bruenchenhein's works contained within his home were transported to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Subsequently, an extensive effort to document, catalog and preserve Von Bruenchenhein's work was mounted under the direction of Joanne Cubbs.

Phillip March Jones

Selected Exhibitions

2018, Outliers and American Vanguard Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

2017, Known/Unknown: Private Obsession and Hidden Desire in Outsider Art, Museum of Sex, New York

2013,  Alternative Guide To The Universe, Hayward Gallery, London

2013, The Encyclopedic Palace, 55th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, Giardini and at the Arsenale, Venice

2013, Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

2013, Women's Studies, American Folk Art Museum, New York

2011, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: From the Wand of the Genii, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago

2011, Inova/Kenilworth, a gallery of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee

2010, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Freelance Artist-Poet and Sculptor-Innovator-Arrow maker and Plant man-Bone artifacts constructor-Photographer and Architect-Philosopher, American Folk Art Museum, New York

2010, Out Of This World, American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore

2008, After Nature, Group Exhibition, New Museum, New York

2007, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Feigen Contemporary, New York

2004, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Feigen Contemporary, New York

2001, American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum, American Folk Art Museum, New York

1999, Botanical Explosions: The Paintings of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York

1999, Obsession, Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne

1999, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein Photography, Aurel Scheibler Gallery, Cologne

1999, Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century, traveling exhibition sponsored by the Museum of American Folk Art, New York

1998, Ceramic Sculptures: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia

1998, Naked, Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York

1997, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Works in Clay, Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia

1996, Biennale de Lyon, Lyon

1996, Looking Beyond the Mirror, Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago

1996, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Paintings, Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York

1995, A World of Their Own: Twentieth-Century American Folk Art, Newark Museum, Newark

1995, Obsession: Photographs by E.V.B., Michael Lord Gallery, Milwaukee

1994, Experience the Fantasy, Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago

1994, Marie, Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York

1993, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Fotografien, Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne

1993, E. Von Bruenchenhein Photographs, Edward Thorp Gallery, New York

1992, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Utopic Dreams, Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago

1991, Dreams, Lies and Exaggerations: Photomontage in America, Traveling Exhibition: The Art Gallery of the University of Maryland at College Park; John M. Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan

1990, Outsiders: Artists Outside the Mainstream, Octagon Center for the Arts, Ames, Iowa

1990, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago

1990, Chicago New Art Forms Exposition, Chicago

1990, Visions: Expressions Beyond the Mainstream, Arts Club of Chicago, Chicago

1990, Chicago International Art Exposition, Chicago

1990, E. V. B.: Paintings and Photographs, Edward Thorp Gallery, New York

1989, Departures: Photography 1924-1989, Hirschl and Adler Modern, New York

1989, Paintings of Utopic Vision, Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago

1988, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Obsessive Visionary, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee

1998, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago

1998, Chicago International Art Exposition, Chicago

1998, Chicago New Art Forms Exposition, Chicago

1987, Chairs as Art, Arts Club of Chicago, Chicago

1987, Material Obsessions, Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago

1987, A Thousand and One Nights, Landmark Gallery, Milwaukee

1987, Chairs, Expressways Children’s Museum, Chicago

1987, Chicago International Art Exposition, Chicago

1987, Chicago New Art Forms Exposition, Chicago

1986, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago

1984, Von Bruenchenhein: A Retrospective, Landmark Gallery, Milwaukee

1984, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Wisconsin Visionary, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan

1983, Remains To Be Seen, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan

Selected Collections

American Folk Art Museum, New York
Collection de L'Art Brut, Lausanne, Switzerland
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Illinois 
John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California
Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas 
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri
New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Selected Bibliography

Rugoff, Ralph, ed., The Alternative Guide to the Universe, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Publishing, London, 2013.

Littman, Brett (with a preface by Maria Ann Conelli), Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: “Freelance Artist—Poet and Sculptor—Innovator—Arrow maker and Plant man—Bone artifacts constructor—Photographer and Architect—Philosopher,” exhibition catalogue, American Folk Art Museum, New York, 2011.

Swislow, William, "Three Outsider Photographers: Lee Godie, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and Morton Bartlett," Folk Art Messenger, Winter 2002.

Squires, Carol, "King of Hearts," American Photography, May-June 2000.

Stone, Lisa, "Eugene Von Bruenchenhein," Raw Vision, No. 10, Winter 1994-95.
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