Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910 - 1983)

Birth date: 1910 Death date: 1983  
Birth location: Death location:  
Media: Folk & Outsider Art , Painting , Photography , Sculpture Web site:
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Eugene Von Bruenchenhein
Born 1910 in Milwaukee
Died 1983 in Milwaukee

Milwaukeean outsider artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) remained unknown during his lifetime, but not for lack of talent or output. The breadth of his creative life was well-stated in a sign he displayed in his kitchen: “Freelance Artist, Poet and Sculptor, Innovator, Arrow maker and Plant man, Bone artifacts constructor, Photographer and Architect, Philosopher.” Von Bruenchenhein lived out this ambitious self-description to a startling degree, especially considering his modest education and financial means.

Von Bruenchenhein spent most of his life in a small Milwaukee house. His eclectic stepmother influenced his outlook, but his muse was Marie, his wife of forty years. Eugene took countless artistic photos of Marie posed in various costumes, often semi-nude, typically against floral backdrops. In these photos critics recognize a flair for composition as well as influences from American popular culture.

In 1959, Von Bruenchenhein’s health caused him to retire early from his job at a bakery. By this time his devotion to oil painting had become an obsession: in 1965 he noted to himself that he had completed a thousand paintings. He experimented with different ways of applying paint to Masonite or cardboard, settling into a habit of quick, improvisational painting with his fingers and other tools. These paintings earn Von Bruenchenhein a place among history’s visionaries in all media. The viewer is hard-pressed to separate representations of real or possible things from unsettlingly organic abstractions. The artist’s visions include ones inspired by the specter of nuclear war; otherworldly landscapes, often featuring beautiful architectural structures; frames teeming with life, perhaps under the sea or highly magnified; paintings that evoke prehistory, the distant future, and realms of outer space strangely full of vitality.

Von Bruenchenhein’s third major artistic phase involved the construction of three-dimensional objects. He worked extensively in ceramics painted with enamels, producing small objects that echo forms seen in his visionary paintings, but moreover reflect his lifelong fascination with real-world plants, particularly cacti. He also used clay and concrete to create masks, crowns, and adorned human or animal likenesses resembling those of primitive cultures. His personal library gives clues as to his inspirations.

Due to his meager, fixed income, Von Bruenchenhein became adept at scavenging materials; for example, he took clay from construction sites. In the late 1960s he began to build sculptures out of chicken and turkey bones that he carefully processed and sorted. He made over one hundred tiny bone chairs, using airplane glue and layers of paint. He went on to construct skeletal towers up to four feet tall, using mostly chicken bones. Von Bruenchenhein’s little chairs and sizeable spires display a keen sense of design and seem to have afforded him fresh perspectives on the uses of paint.

Shortly after his death, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein began to receive the critical attention he had wanted. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center mounted a solo exhibition in 1984. His work was featured in group shows, and a market for it began to take shape. Most recently, the American Folk Art Museum in New York offered a major solo exhibition running from late 2010 into January 2011. Interest in Von Bruenchenhein’s unusual life and artwork continues to grow. 

Wisconsin Affiliations

No affiliations were found.

Wisconsin Art Organizations

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