Hidden away in the little-known Walker boudoir, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s Fantasy Play is lovingly separated from the rest of Midnight Party. And rightfully so, for this work gives passersby a slightly uncomfortable glance into Von Bruenchenhein’s elaborate private world. Marie, the artist’s wife and subject of the photograph that we will explore today, is standing up. She sports stockings and little heels, a long dress with a painterly check design that evokes the South Pacific (and pulled a little low to be appropriate for any but those beaches), flowers in her hair in the style of Frida Kahlo. Her exposed breasts point out at the viewer, oddly squished by her ill-fitting garments. She’s wearing a peach cardigan and her hands are somewhere behind her back; untitled (Marie) features the lady looking out at the viewer, nearly smiling (photograph pictured below, at the far right of the shot).
Marie seems to be comfortable in her spot on the wall: surrounded by other portraits of herself, she is matted and placed within a simple, wooden frame. This room is devoted to Marie as much as it is to her husband’s photographs of her. The Walker’s intimate parlor welcomes the viewer with blue green walls, shell-pink kissing chairs and slightly spotted brown, wall-to-wall carpet.
Working with flowers during the day as a florist and baker, photographer Von Bruenchenhein staged floral scenes by night centered around his wife Marie. Through this series of photographs, the artist unwittingly gives us insight into his marriage: the playful relationship of a couple living in relative obscurity in mid-century Wisconsin. Now considered an “outsider artist,” Von Bruenchenheim documented his wife, his junior by ten years; his lens lingers on her slim physique, curled hair, and gentle gaze over and over again. Rather than archive his wife’s daily life, Von Bruenchenhein pins Marie like a little butterfly in these sensual boudoir scenes, replete with textiles, wallpapers and pattern. Like Max Reinhardt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Von Bruenchenhein’s photographs are intoxicating, ethereal but also collaged, cut-and-pasted — clearly a façade. His figures lack the exoticism of Matisse’s odalisques or the fierce empowerment of modern-day Mickalene Thomas’s ladies.
Untitled (Marie) is no girl next door, and she’s also no trophy wife or consciously exotic other. This is the girl in the bedroom: she is complicit, unlike a hired model, and her sensuality seems to lack motive. She lives in a dream world, cacophonous with flowers and delightful homemade props. She is not subversive; she is comfortable. She exposes her breasts as unapologetically as she wears her little heels and cardigan. Plucked from obscurity and chosen by the institution, these photographs are bizarre in this context but not altogether dissonant with the crowned, queer dancing scene reflected across the gallery . The little-known Walker boudoir stages a tiny, flattened arrangement of Maries, like a Wisconsin-born bougainvillea, among the flowers.
Chloe Nelson is the program assistant for mnartists.org.
Viewfinder posts are your opportunity to “show & tell” about the everyday arts happenings, interesting sights and sounds made or as seen by Minnesota artists, because art is where you find it. Submit your own informal, first-person responses to the art around you to editor(at)mnartists.org, and we may well publish your piece here on the blog. (Guidelines: 300 words or less, not about your own event/work, and please include an image, media, video, or audio file, and one sentence about yourself.)