Joseph In Bubble Letters
Joseph In Bubble Letters – Surreal alchemy with ephemeral fossils: Cornell’s Object (Soap Bubble Set) of 1941. Image: Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation
The American artist Joseph Cornell, self-taught and therefore rather unique, made all manner of assemblages, consisting mostly of items from the vast archive, a kind of personal museum, he kept in the basement of his suburban home at 3708 Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, New York. But before we get to these wonderful collages and constructions – before we look at the owls and cockatoos, the apothecary bottles filled with sand and butterfly wings, the collection of newspapers related to the life of Ludwig II of Bavaria – let’s turn our attention to an altogether more ordinary element: a parcel.
Joseph In Bubble Letters
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It was made by Cornell in 1947 and as the curators of the new exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy point out, it is certainly one of the most enigmatic objects he ever composed. The piece consists of a small rectangular box, on top of which is pasted a palimpsest of texts, maps and stamps, as if it had been sent twice around the world and back again. This fearless parcel is sealed. It cannot be opened. Locked within it, however, is an unknown number of chimes and bells. pick it up, and you’ll hear them clang and crack and generally bang. It is literally a music box, combining two of the artist’s many obsessions: travel and sound.
In the 21st century, this box is behind glass. we must consider its contents in confidence. But while that’s a shame – the only disappointment there is in this great show is that we don’t get to play with any of the artist’s toys the way he wanted us to – it’s also fitting, in the case of this item. Cornell, too, had to take things into confidence. His love of Europe, like his fascination with Egypt, was based on nothing more than books, postcards and conversation, for he never left America, hardly even New York State. The package, which we could call his proxy if it were in one of the African countries that adorn it with the stamps, is wrapped in his imaginary wanderings. It represents both what it knows and what it does not know. Like him, it is both playful and mysterious. His heart, like his own, cannot be opened. There is something friendly and democratic about its yellowed exterior, but this parcel is also lonely: something special. It is as succinct a symbol of Cornell’s life and work as you could want.
In America, Cornell, who died in 1972, is widely loved. the same at international auction houses, where his work fetches impressive prices. In Britain, however, he is not well known: the last major exhibition of his art to reach these shores (it was at the Whitechapel Gallery in London) was almost 35 years ago, and our public collections contain only two of his works. “Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust” may not change that overnight. something about the Royal Academy’s Sackler galleries – and these are also sealed off – seems to work against building enthusiasm and there are considerable difficulties in showing his work. (His shadow boxes—the miniature worlds that represent the apotheosis of his career—have glass fronts; if the public wants to get close enough to see the exquisite detail contained within each, the gallery has no choice but to put in glass behind even more glass .) But it’s definitely worth some change. Cornell was an extremely prolific artist, yet in this beautifully nonchalant, almost minimalist survey of some 80 of his boxes and collages, you won’t find a single joke, not even a small work. Such restrained curation. Such exquisite (and rarely borrowed) pieces. I do not think the achievement of this exhibition can be overstated.
Cornell was born in Nyack, upstate New York, in 1903, the eldest of four children. In 1917, his cloth salesman father died, leaving the family heavily in debt. Cornell was obliged to follow him in the same profession, traveling by train every day from the family’s rented house in Queens where he lived with his mother and his brother, Robert – who suffered from cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair – to the office of near Madison Square. In his free time, he browsed bookstores, visited galleries, watched movies and attended the ballet. He also collected things: he had already started making scrapbooks and keeping “folders” on public and historical figures that caught his interest. Then, in 1931, everything changed. Having lost his job in the depression, Cornell wandered into the Julien Levy gallery in search of a particular photograph for one of his collections. Soon after he joined his roster of artists, having by now – apparently out of nowhere – created several collages of his own. The following year he was presented there with Dalì, Picasso and Ernst in an exhibition entitled ‘Surréalisme’. His career had begun.
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The Royal Academy exhibition makes relatively little of this improbable beginning, and as it progresses, you understand why. Cornell was certainly eccentric: a devout Christian Scientist who lived with his mother, who fell for unattainable women but probably died a virgin. (“Tall, pale as a pearl, and astonished, he usually sat a little way off,” wrote his friend Dorothea Tanning, the artist who was married to Max Ernst. “… he spoke pure, cobwebs about my drawings.) But he didn’t he was a stranger. It wasn’t just that he knew people like, say, Andy Warhol, who once came to tea with Mrs. Cornell and Robert. His boxes often explicitly reflect contemporary movements in art.
, made in 1946-48, is a white wooden grid filled with similar white cubes, a clear nod to Mondrian’s abstraction, with which Cornell was very busy at the time. Compiled about 1967,
, a portable mirror on which a tiny plastic swan glides, was inspired by the Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova. But it is the spirit of Duchamp that first comes to mind.
The exhibition is arranged thematically, which seems as good a way to order Cornell (it starts with ‘Play and Experiment’, moves through ‘Collecting and Classification’ and ‘Observation and Exploration’ and ends with ‘Longing and Reverie »). But eventually you won’t need the words on the wall. Make of Cornell what you will. He has always appealed to writers: Octavio Paz wrote a poem about him which was translated by Elizabeth Bishop, who made her own shadow boxes as a tribute to the artist. American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer edited a volume of fiction and poetry inspired by it with contributions from Rick Moody and Lydia Davis, among others, which was published in 2001. more recently, Gabriel Josipovici wrote a novel,
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, based on his life. More than any other artist I know, his work allows the mind to wander, to mingle freely, to attach its own stories to what the eye sees. He wanted to bring back in us a sense of play and wonder. What he absolutely did not want was for the critic to babble about the meaning. It shows us wonderful vistas: whole worlds, whole planets. Why shrink them? Why drag the smiling visitor back to earth?
However, playing the critic, I have to say something. I quickly went through the first few collages, although they are skillful. For me, Cornell’s excitement lies not in scissors and paper, but in what he called his “ecstatic journey,” a criss-crossing journey that includes all kinds of substance—indeed, it’s the art world’s step—but also deep feeling. of time (he is crazy about both planets and geology). When he combines the two, it’s a heady mix.
(1940) is a ‘bottle museum’, made for a dancer who shared her name with the Queen of the Nile, its contents touching on the flora, fauna and archeology of Egypt: a neat twist on the vanity that might the dancer had brought her engagements. In a similar way,
, made between 1941 and 1952, is a small case, in which you can find a biography of the eccentric king and other items related to his life: a paper mausoleum by any other name.
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Of 1941 consists of a clay tube from which blows a series of ‘bubbles’, each containing an X-ray-like image of a fossil or shell, geological time disappearing in the blink of an eye.
Cornell liked to work in series: the cages and pigeon houses, the slot machines and the sanctuaries. I was drawn to its blue hues
, dating from the 1940s. This piece is outwardly simple, but there is such care here, such love. He always went out and collected pine needles and grass, he worked like an “old druggist”.
(1953-54) shows his instinctive understanding of cubism but with his own twist. The maps behind the cockatoo give the feeling that