I Wish I Could Speak in Technicolor: Visions of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein
Curated by Maurizio Cattelan and Marta Papini
On May 20th, 1910, Earth passed through the Halley comet's tail, the only comet regularly visible to the naked eye from Earth, and thus the only naked-eye comet that can appear twice in a human lifetime. For the first time, the short-period comet’s approach was documented through a photographic process by the scientists in the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Some of its stardust might have settled on the newborn Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, born on July 31 in Wisconsin that same year.
Forty years later, on April 19th, 1954, another extraordinary phenomenon was spread to the world through Life magazine’s cover, where unclassified color photographs of the US nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands were published. For the first time, the immense red mushroom cloud made its official appearance in popular culture.
Until that moment, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's relentlessly artistic vein had found his outburst in shooting black and white photos and color slides of his wife Marie (born Evelyn Kalka), taking inspiration from the aesthetics of contemporary pinup magazines. In the thousands of photos shot with different floral print backdrops in the same little house, Marie interprets and plays with several roles and stereotypes: from undressed seductress to the glamorous Hollywood star, to the crowned queen of remote land.
But starting from 1954, the photos of those nuclear tests in full color impressed Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's fervid imagination to the point that to the photographic lens he would prefer the Masonite boards or pieces of cardboard taken from at the bakery where he worked. Over the next decade, by using his fingers, sticks, combs, cardboard, leaves, crumpled paper, and even brushes made of Marie’s hair, Von Bruenchenhein painted apocalyptic and surrealistic visions, invented creatures from the deep sea, yet-to-be-discovered galaxies, vibrant colored fireworks, and cities taken over by lush extraterrestrial plants.
At the pace of about one a day, between 1954 and 1964 Von Bruenchenhein wrote a logbook in form of paintings, creating almost the impression of a narrative. His journey, at first inspired by the nuclear tests’ photos, would then go down through the lenses of his microscope and the discovery of mysterious organisms in a drop of water, up to the sky again, that he managed to explore through the lenses of an astronomical telescope he bought in 1957.
In the painting dated May 5th, 1956, the destroying power of the nuclear bomb is evoked through the representation of multicolored concentric circles looming on an arcaded city panorama, about to be pulverized by the hypersonic impact, as imagined by many sci-fi movies of the time.
On January 1st, 1957, two teethed creatures whose appearance seems inspired by Chinese dragons intertwine their tails to navigate a dense clouded liquid populated by other organisms, in a symbiotic relationship that seems to resonate with the kinship evoked by Donna Haraway 60 years later.
Von Bruenchenhein studied botany, and often stated he was a horticulturalist: between September 1st, 1959 and June 1st, 1960 he would paint a vast series of tentacular beings drifting in a colorful-dripping-outer space that recalls the drawings of invertebrates and plants represented by German biologist Ernst Haeckel in Art Forms in Nature in 1899.
In the same way Ridley Scott envisioned an Earth’s progenitor in his 2012 movie Prometheus, Von Bruenchenhein dedicated a whole series of his paintings to what he would call the First World, a planet which he believed split off from ours during cataclysmic event eons before. The last painting in the exhibition closes the cycle: on April 12th, 1960 the devastating power of the nuclear bomb is again the undisputed protagonist of Von Bruenchenhein’s preoccupation, depicting a huge inflamed detonation.
In the sixties, forced to retire early due to a respiratory ailment caused by his inhaling flour while working as a donut maker, Von Bruenchenhein started working with a less expensive media than oil painting. With the aid of rulers, French curves, and other drafting tools he used the ballpoint pen to draw symmetrical geometries that evoke templelike buildings, space shuttles, birds, and floral imagery, which he glued into a giant book of wallpaper samples.
If it is true that this immense body of artworks requires a contemplative way of being, especially because they imply navigating through hallucinatory images of an inner intimate world, its titles, by clearly stating the specific day on which they were created, suggest a more conceptual level of reading, to the point that one could suppose that this archival impetus can be seen as a way to examine chronological time and its function as a measure of human existence.
Von Bruenchenhein engaged his personal mythology with new – and very contemporary – shared fears of a planetary catastrophe. His artworks reflect the influences of the micro and the macro, and, by combining the individual visions with the global events, testify how an individual lifespan forms a part of human history.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein died in 1983: Halley’s comet would make its return to our sky only three years later in 1986, but, through his art, he was able to envision its next passages for the centuries to come.
Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960, Italy) is one of the most prominent Italian artists in the world. Over a thirty-year long career, his works highlight the paradoxes of society and reflect on political and cultural scenarios with great depth and insight. By using iconic images and a caustic visual language, his works spark heated public debate fostering a sense of collective participation.
His solo exhibitions have been presented by institutions of international importance, including UCCA Beijing (2022), Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Italy (2021), Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, UK (2019), Monnaie de Paris (2016), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2016 and 2011), Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel (2013), Palazzo Reale, Milan (2010), Kunsthaus Bregenz (2008), MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2007), Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan (2004), Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2004), MOCA Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2003), Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2003), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2002). Cattelan has also participated in major group shows, such as Yokohama Triennale (2017 and 2001), Venice Biennale (2011, 2009, 2003, 2001, 1999, 1997, and 1993), Gwangju Biennale (2010), Biennale of Sydney (2008), Whitney Biennial, New York (2004), Seville Biennial (2004), Biennale de Lyon (2003), Skulptur Projekte Münster (1997). Finalist of the Guggenheim Hugo Boss Prize (2000), the artist has received the Rome Quadriennale Prize (2009), the Arnold-Bode Prize, Kassel (2005), the honorary degree in Sociology by the University of Trento (2004) and the title of Honorary Professor in Sculpture by the Accademia di Belle Arti di Carrara (2018).
Marta Papini (b. 1985, Italy) is the Artistic Organizer of The Milk of Dreams, 59th Venice Biennale (2022) curated by Cecilia Alemani. Most recently Papini curated Lonely Are All Bridges. Birgit Jürgenssen and Cinzia Ruggeri at Galerie Hubert Winter, Vienna (2021) and organized Il mondo magico, the Italian Pavilion at the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale (2017, curated by Cecilia Alemani), in addition to co-curating The Artist is Present, Yuz Museum, Shanghai (2018, with Maurizio Cattelan).
Papini spent several years in the curatorial department of Centro Pecci, Prato where she organized solo presentations of the work of Aleksandra Mir (2018), Eva Marisaldi (2019), and Mark Wallinger (2018) and the group exhibition Protext! (2021) with Camilla Mozzato. As a freelance, Papini curated the 16th Rome Quadriennale, Altri tempi, altri miti (2016) and Shit and Die in Turin (2014, with Myriam Ben Salah and Maurizio Cattelan).
Papini has edited, coordinated, and contributed to several publications and catalogs: The Milk of Dreams (La Biennale di Venezia, 2022), Birgit Jürgenssen. I am (Prestel, 2019); Il mondo magico (Marsilio Editori, 2017); Suzanne Lacy: Gender Agendas (Mousse Publishing, 2015); Shit and Die (Damiani editore, 2014); 1968: Radical Italian Design (Deste Foundation, 2014). She collaborated with magazines such as Icon Design, Purple, Flash Art and L’Uomo Vogue. She currently writes about contemporary art in Icon magazine and Il Post.