Wanderlust – Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972)
To the Royal Academy to see the Joseph Cornell retrospective – another artist with whom I was unfamiliar. I wouldn’t have met him either because born and raised in the Nyack area of the Big Apple, he was pretty much a reclusive, never travelling beyond the New York metropolitan area. But what he lacked in road mileage and real life experience he made up with a fertile imagination. The show in the Sackler Wing – lift still out of action – gives a fascinating insight into his work.
If I was to characterise his work it would be Damien Hirst without the formaldehyde, putrefaction and bling. Technically, Cornell’s work is assemblage which uses a multitude of media and is generally in a 3-d format. The surrealists in general and Picasso in particular developed this art form but in Cornell’s hands it is not plain weird, just a bit weird. I’ve often wondered what to do with all my old books and magazines. Cornell had the perfect answer – he takes pages and cuttings, pictures and images from the press, hollows out books and stuffs them in glass-fronted wooden boxes. First impressions are that you are in the presence of a slightly deranged collector or in the rather dusty reject room of some provincial Victorian museum.
But the works are worthy of a second glance. Each box is filled with a varied collection of artefacts – there are bird’s eggs, thimbles, stamps, marbles, a whole gallimaufry of objet d’arts. Perhaps my use of gallimaufry is a bit unfair on Cornell. There is artistic design behind each box but it is studied disorder, perhaps a difficult effect to succeed with. There is something actually ethereal about the work or, certainly, other-worldly. Cases in point are probably my favourite pieces in the collection, the Medici Slot Machine boxes. The images of the Medici children stare out of their boxes and the viewer is left with an unfulfilled urge to touch the box and examine their intricate mechanics. Fairground games and slot machines abound in the exhibition, some with moving parts and esoteric rules. Object/Tower of Babel and Children of Israel is a game where the player has to get the red beads, representing the children of Israel, past a little cork tower without knocking it over.. I would have loved to have had a go. But throughout his pieces there is an air of wistfulness, of lost childhood and a yearning for places he would never see.
Cornell was also fascinated by eccentrics and some of his works encapsulate the lives of historical characters such as Ludwig of Bavaria, he of fairy castle fame, and the soprano Henriette Sontag through associated objects arranged in a box or suitcase. A number of the boxes are devoted to Galileo and Cornell’s fascination with the cosmos. There is a child-like sense of awe that comes through his Observatory sequence. Simply stunning is the Tilly Losch box, representing a girl in crinoline, rising high above snowy mountains, borne aloft by strings – a sense of grace and weightlessness but the red bead in her hand hints of a darker side. And the opening piece as you walk in – a silvery palace with a brushwood background, the image created by inserting a mirror behind an old illustration of a palace and cutting out the windows – in retrospect epitomises the fairy-tale quality of this astonishing artist’s work.
The RA are to be commended for putting on the first major show of his work in over 30 years.