First published: Fall 2019
The artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's wife Marie was his model and muse, but as a woman with a personal history, who was she?
Marie Von Bruenchenhein appears in the photo-based works her husband Eugene created – as a fantasy queen, exotic muse, and erotic temptress all at once. But who was she, really, in her own life? In her provocative essay “Dear Marie”, published in the catalogue of the exhibition Mythologies: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Karen Patterson, the former senior curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan (JMKAC), Wisconsin, poses these and other questions in the form of a letter to a woman who remains a compelling, mysterious figure in the history of outsider art. Patterson curated that exhibition, which opened at the JMKAC in June 2017 and ran through mid January 2018. The following excerpts from her text appear in their original, American-English form, and original footnotes have been removed because of space limitations.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Untitled (Marie, double exposure), c. 1943–1960, gelatin silver print, 2.5 x 2.75 in. / 6.3 x 7 cm, collection of John Michael Kohler Arts Center
I wanted to write you a letter as a way to connect with you. To bring you closer. There is a lot that is unknown about you, and I want to learn more. Many people have raised questions over the years about who you were and what your life was like, but it is almost impossible to determine the answers. In the decades since your husband’s artwork entered the public sphere in 1983, a lot has been written about Eugene but not much about you. You remain somewhat of a mystery. In fact, for the most part, we see you only within parentheses, your name a subtitle, a description.
But you’re the subject of thousands photographs and admired by countless viewers.
When curators and art historians discuss these photographs, the focus is on you as subject, or object – not you as a person. With so little knowledge about your role in the creation of the images, we’ve come to think of you as a passive participant, possibly consumed by Eugene’s larger-than-life aura.
Is that true? What can be learned about you now, after all this time?
Here’s what we know: You were born Evelyn Theresa Kalke on August 1, 1920, in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, to parents Agnes and Frank Kalke, and you died in Shorewood, a suburb of Milwaukee, on February 5, 1989. The highest academic level you completed was the eighth grade. State records list several Wisconsin locations for you: Glendale, Milwaukee, Shorewood, and Whitefish Bay, but we only know that you moved to the Greenfield area of Milwaukee at some point before 1940. In March 1940 you are listed in the census as being nineteen years of age and seeking work; you subsequently enrolled for unemployment benefits for almost four years. You met Eugene at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1939 and married him three years later. Soon after, you became known as Marie, a name Eugene bestowed on you to honor one of his favorite aunts. (How did it feel to be renamed? Was this when your identity began to become subsumed by his?)
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #103