Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983), a self-taught artist living in obscurity in Milwaukee, handcrafted a plaque which hung in his kitchen and identified his metier: “Freelance artist, Poet and sculptor, inovater (sic) Arrow maker and Plant man, Bone artifacts constructor, Photographer and Architect, Philosopher.” Shortly after his death, when his enormous lifetime collection of works was discovered in his tiny home (which was more of a working studio than a comfortable living space) the art world proclaimed him as an Outsider Artist. He never realized the reputation he gained.
His insular life was of his own creation. He was devoted to his skill at handcrafting found objects into sculpture, photographing his wife and projecting his apocalyptic vision of mankind’s future threatened by nuclear destruction. He expressed himself through paintings on cardboard, and poetry and prose on scraps of old paper. Most of his creations were crafted from scraps others would discard as junk. His fantastic vision filled every inch of the humble living space he shared with his wife, Marie. Stacked floor to ceiling were paintings on cardboard and Masonite, and pages of discarded wallpaper sample books depicting atomic mushroom clouds and fantastic sea-monsters. There were ceramics constructed from dirt with ruddy ghoulish features, sculptures of chairs and towers constructed from chicken bones. There were also hundreds of photos of Marie, playfully posing in costumes of his making, some fashioned from drapery and other handy materials.
His life was his art, his home was his studio and his wife was his model. Her photographs, often semi-nude and very beguiling, were pin-ups for their use only, adorning the walls along with self-made masks of Gothic expression and regal chicken-bone crowns for Marie to wear.
Von Bruenchenhein, also referred to as an “obsessive visionary,” fits the profile of an outsider artist, a term he more than likely never heard. Strictly defined, outsider art refers to work produced by artists usually living in self-imposed isolation with no ties to the art world or any other community, little social contact and often sporadic employment. Characteristics of the category include the artist rendering a unique and nontraditional vision of the world. Expressing the view repeatedly, the outsider often produces extensive quantities of work and seldom veers from the obsessive vision. The outsider artist is self-taught and seeks no influence from the mainstream art world.
Although the term was coined in 1972, outsider art grew from the label “Art Brut,” a term defined by the French artist Jean DuBuffet in the late 1940s. Translated as raw or rough art, DuBuffet’s focus was on the mentally ill and patients he observed in psychiatric clinics. Recognizing creative impulses in them, he believed that art could be created from a genuine expression from within, with no outside influence dictating, distracting or intimidating the creator. As DuBuffet stated: “ … works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere.” He began obtaining works by artists both institutionalized and others bearing a non-conventional approach to art. In 1971 he donated his collection to the city of Lausanne, Switzerland, where it remains today as one of the most important compilations of the genre.
The definition of outsider art has prompted widespread debate in recent years, with many artists eagerly adopting the label as a marketing tool. The “Outsider Art movement” is a contradiction in terms. True outsiders know of no movements and belong to no clubs.
Another classic outsider artist was the subject of a recent documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal; The Mystery of Henry Darger. Filmed by Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu, the documentary reconstructs the life a Chicago recluse who spent his childhood in an asylum and his adulthood working as a janitor. Until after his death, few knew that Darger spent his life writing and illustrating a 15,000–page fantasy called In the Realms of the Unreal, as well as executing hundreds of paintings to accompany his narrative.
Early on in life, Darger (1892-1973) determined existence was too difficult and painful for him to bear. Rather than give in to the depths of his misery and despair, he invented a fantastic new world for himself, through writing and painting. His singular epic of biblical proportions centered on seven heroines he called the Vivian Girls and, for 60 years, they filled his life with their struggles and triumphs. Culling from his own life experience, the girls faced good and evil as they fought battles, at times featuring profane and disturbing imagery.
As with von Bruenchenhein, Darger’s alternative world was shared with few and it was not for show or sale. Just before his death, his works were discovered in the apartment he occupied most of his life. The cramped rooms were filled with the materials from which he shaped his vision. Art supplies, stacks of old newspapers and periodicals, religious items and pictures of children were among his belongings.
The lives of von Bruenchenhein and Darger illustrate the importance of the power of art. They found purpose through their vision, which became their raison d’etre. Both worked within the classic outsider-art dictum, creating not to earn a living or gain recognition but simply to stay alive amidst a kind of madness that lurked within.
The John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis., has showcased a permanent collection of more than 600 of von Bruenchenhein’s creations, which includes bone chairs and towers, ceramic crowns, sculpture and vessels, concrete masks, miscellaneous artifacts, paintings and photographs.
Authentic outsider art has been a pursuit of collectors for several decades, with auction prices remaining substantial. In 2003, Christies (New York) auctioned several of Darger’s sizable works. An 18 3/4-inch by 92-inch watercolor/graphite/collage on paper titled Violet Goes on Dangerous Mission/Surprised Again sold for $35,850 including buyer’s premium. A larger watercolor/graphite/collage on paper (24 inches by 107 1/8 inches) titled While inside they await developments they are cleverly Outwitted … reached $89,625 including buyer’s premium.
Von Bruenchenhein auction prices are lower but respectable. A 2004 sale, also at Christies, brought $5,975 including buyer’s premium for an untitled oil on Masonite, 24 inches square. Gallery prices for his works can be found in the same range.
While much of the commercially inspired “outsider art” of recent years will probably prove to have ephemeral value at best, the work of prominent, genuine outsiders is likely to retain value and interest based on their compelling life stories.
Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit www.LandmarksGallery.com, or call 800-352-8892.