Day Six: Joseph Cornell

There is nothing quite as compelling as a Cornell box. Intricately constructed, infinitely detailed, Cornell creates his own little world in each box. There is much speculation about the origins of Cornell’s art. He had seen the work of the Dadaists, and especially Max Ernst’s collages, but perhaps more importantly, Cornell had a younger brother, Robert, who was disabled to a large extent, and unable to care for himself. Cornell began making toys for him to keep the boy entertained. “He lived with his mother and his invalid brother Robert until their deaths in the mid 1960’s, only a few years before his own death in 1972,” Kynaston McShine, Introducing Mr. Cornell 1980.

These two boxes from the Medici series perfectly encapsulate Cornell’s ability as a toymaker and also as an obsessive collector of ephemera.

In his book, History of Modern Art, H.H. Arnason says that Cornell was a man of culture; his interests as indicated in his box constructions, ranged over much of the art and literature of the Western world. In the 1930s he became acquainted w/ the Julien Levy Gallery, a center for the display of European surrealism. Here he met many of the surrealists, exiled in the US as a result of Nazism and WWII. His first experiments with collage were inspired by the works of Max Ernst, and soon Julien Levy was exhibiting his small constructions along with the European surrealists. BY the mid-1930s Cornell had settled on his formula of a simple box, glass fronted usually, in which he arranged objects, photographs, maps. With these he created a personal dream world related to surrealist assemblage, but also to Renaissance perspective paintings and to 19th century American tromp l’oeil paintings–in the last case translated back into three-dimensional objects which first inspired them.

Cornell’s boxes are filled with associations–of home, family, childhood, of all the literature he had read and the art he had seen. The only proper analogy to them is Proust. His entire life seems to have been devoted to the remembrance of things past, a nostalgia for a lost childhood or a lost world.


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