Born 1910, Marinette, Wisconsin
Died 1983, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Eugene von Bruenchenhein spent his days laboring in a bakery in Milwaukee and his nights working on his multifarious artistic creations until he retired in 1959. He then devoted himself fully to his calling. Although he yearned to show his expansive body of work to the public, going so far as to petition Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson for recognition, it was not until after his death that he found a significant audience.
From the first posthumous exhibition of works from his estate, von Bruenchenhein steadily gained a national reputation, particularly for his photographs, which resonated with art world currents of the 1980s.
Beginning in the 1940s, von Bruenchenhein made thousands of black-and-white photographs and color slides featuring his wife, Marie (born Evelyn Kalka). The images, which often mime the aesthetics of contemporary pinup photography, catalog a vast array of feminine roles, from exotic seductress to glamorous star. Marie poses coquettishly against floral backdrops, nude or wrapped in shining fabric and adorned in flowers, pearls, and handmade crowns of ceramic or metal. Other images use double exposures surreally to duplicate Marie’s visage or superimpose it over leafy landscapes. While von Bruenchenhein mythically conflates femininity, erotic desire, and nature, Marie’s own touch shows through, not only in the hand coloring she applied to some of the photographs but in the enigmatic contribution she made while embodying each pose.
Along with making photographs, von Bruenchenhein painted, sculpted, wrote poems, and formulated scientific theories. He created an eccentric array of objects, such as a series of crowns out of materials ranging from radiating twirls of metal to clumps of clay decorated with paint, glitter, and foil. His writings were similarly eclectic, weaving together diverse fields from astronomy and botany to evolutionary science. Initially inspired by his stepmother, who painted floral still lifes and penned New Age treatises, von Bruenchenhein increasingly adopted an encyclopedic range of forms of expression, filling up every corner of his home, which was itself covered in painted decoration.
Littman, Brett. Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: “freelance artist, poet and sculptor, inovator [sic], arrow maker and plant man, bone artifacts constructor, photographer and architect, philosopher.” New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2011.
Patterson, Karen, ed. Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Mythologies. Sheboygan, WI: John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2017.