John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin
Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
Purchased by Akron Art Museum, June 13, 1990
2014 - 2016: Haslinger Galleries, 10/22/14 - 3/28/16, Akron Art Museum
2007 - 2011: Haslinger galleries, 7/7/07 - 11/6/11, Akron Art Museum
1997 - 1998: "A 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/15/97 - 1/11/98, Akron Art Museum
1991 - 1992: "Focus on the Collection: A 70th Anniversary Celebration" 11/3/91 - 1/5/92, Akron Art Museum
1991: "Current Events: Recent Acquisitions on Social Issues" 4/20/91 - 7/14/91, Akron Art Museum
Name, date inscribed LL, "No. 534" inscribed in LR, recto
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein
No. 534, December 30, 1956
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
"Create and be recognized" was one of the mottoes adorning Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's humble, eccentrically decorated Milwaukee home.1 Indeed, it was through his art that this self-taught artist and writer finally gained recognition, but unfortunately not until after his death.2 Inaddition to paintings, this Milwaukee Leonardo also created poetry and scientific treatises; fanciful, touchingly erotic photographs of his wife; ceramic and cement sculptures; and miniature chairs and towers made from chicken and turkey bones (the remnants of numerous poultry dinners eaten by the impoverished artist and his wife).
Von Bruenchenhein left high school before graduation and was employed by a florist until 1944, one year after his marriage. He then changed to a job in a large bakery, where he worked until 1959. Health problems and the company's closing forced him into early retirement but freed him for artistic and intellectual pursuits. His mentor in these areas had been his stepmother, a chiropractor and amateur painter who had authored pamphlets on evolution and reincarnation.
His stepmother's interests may have inspired the artist's pseudo-scientific flights of fancy about the geological history of the earth and the evolution of its life forms—possibly the subject of No. 534. According to researcher Joanne Cubbs, "one of the artist's earliest and most frequently recurring protagonists is a snakelike monster with bulging eyes, sharp whiskers, a long pointed beak, and a glowing mane”3—almost certainly the creature portrayed here. Perhaps the monster is one of the inhabitants of the "First World," noted by Von Bruenchenhein in his treatises as the mother planet from which the earth was torn by an explosion. Or perhaps it stems from the artist's exploration of life's beginnings, inspired partly by his views of ordinary materials through a microscope and partly by a large collection of National Geographic magazines.
The creature's mythological status is echoed in the way it is painted; here Von Bruenchenhein exalted in the lusciousness of paint and the drama of gestures while eschewing anatomical detail and biological accuracy. His typical working method was to pour white enamel over a fiberboard panel to form a smooth ground (base coat); then he squeezed oil pigments directly on the painting and used his fingers, along with sticks, cardboard, leaves, burlap, combs, and crumpled paper, to spontaneously create shapes, textures, and spatial illsions.4 His expressionistic style coincides with the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and shares with Surrealism of the 1930s and 1940s an interest in abstract biological imagery and "automatic" painting (letting the image flow directly from the unconscious onto the canvas). Von Bruenchenhein could have become aware of these mainstream art movements through articles in popular magazines.5
The popular press also provided Von Bruenchenhein with another source of inspiration. He began painting seriously in 1954 in reaction to news reports, complete with color photographs, of the first hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific. His earliest images—painted with a brush which he soon abandoned—were vividly colored mushroom clouds billowing over scorched landscapes. By the end of 1956, he had created over five hundred paintings.
The serpent in No. 534 coils at the center of a maelstrom of green and reddish-brown forms (lines of explosive force or vegetal matter in the primordial sea?). Is this creature a progenitor of human life or a snake who tempted modern man with the forbidden knowledge of how to destroy the earth? In the awesome power of both creation and destruction, of nature and science, there is a terrible beauty and a terrifying energy. Von Bruenchenhein eloquently captures this duality in No. 534.
- Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001
1. Most of the information on the artist, his life, and his beliefs comes from Joanne Cubbs, “Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Obsessive Visionary,” in John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 11-23. Cubbs had access to Von Bruenchenhein's art, writings, and tape recordings. She also interviewed the artist's widow, his sister-in-law, and his close friends.
2. Von Bruenchenhein publicly exhibited his art once during his lifetime, in a solo show at an art gallery in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, in 1965. The show apparently met with neither commercial nor critical success, so he never repeated the experience.
3. John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 13.
4. Information on technique comes from John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 12–13, and James Auer, "Poor, Unknown in Life, Artist Now a Big Find," The Milwaukee Journal, March 20, 1983.
5. It is possible that Von Bruenchenhein came by this knowledge firsthand by visiting one or more of the few exhibitions in Milwaukee in the 1940s and 1950s that contained examples of work by Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists. However, since none of the people Cubbs interviewed remembered the artist mentioning visits to museums or galleries, it is more likely that the art world "came to him" in the form of magazine articles.
John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Obsessive Visionary. Sheboygan, Wis.: John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 1988.
Stone, Lisa. "Eugene Von Bruenchenhein." Raw Vision 10 (winter 1994–95): 32–38.