Guide to the Strange Boxes of Joseph Cornell
American Surrealist Artist
Joseph Cornell, a self-taught artist, who went on to become one of the Surrealist movements most prolific art producers. He was born in 1903 in Nyack, New York, a shy, quiet and retiring artist with a kind heart.Renowned for his assemblage sculptures and film montages he is famous for the dreamlike quality and strange narrative his pieces suggested. Like many in the surrealist movement his work relied on a personal, quirky view of familiar objects, which saw the familiar in irrational juxtaposition with each other.
Cornell lived a reclusive life, spending the majority of it sharing his mother’s house, along with his sickly younger brother Robert. During the 1920’s he secured work as a salesman but with the advent of the Great Depression, he found himself unemployed.
In 1929 he viewed Max Ernst’s surrealist exhibition entitled “la Femme 100 tetes.” Ernst’s engraved plates made an immediate impact on Cornell and he began producing his box series that would form the theme throughout his life.
Cornell would spend his free time searching the dark corners of second hand shops, the shelves of bookstores and junk shops looking for interesting objects to populate his glass fronted boxes. His work was heavily symbolic and contained many references to birds, spheres and medicine bottles. All his finds were grouped into series; fantastic stories that have a funfair game look about them. The viewer feels like they must knock over a parrot to win a prize.
Soap Bubbles and Medicine Bottles
Themes like, the soap bubble set, Medici Slot Machines, his Pink Palaces, Space and the enigmatic Hotel series, illustrate his world. The boxes are like mobile museums, portable galleries, full of Victoriana, arcane prints and antique heirlooms, arranged in mini stories and fairytales.
Although never romantically linked with anyone, women found his bashful nature and manner endearing and he would talk at length with visitor’s wives, he had a particular liking for ballerinas finding them “unique.” A number of his boxes are dedicated to stars and women he admired, as in the piece “Bacall” from 1945.
He also entered into film making, splicing together old film stock he had discovered to make montages, a kind of bric-a-brac of found images. The first he screened at the 1936 Surrealist show at the MOMA in New York. Present was Salvador Dali, who complained that he had been working on the idea of surrealist film and that Cornell should stick to his boxes. Intimidated by the verbose Dali, Cornell never showed his films in public again.
By the late 1940’s Cornell had secured work-designing layouts for popular magazines including Vogue, Home & Garden and Harpers Bazaar. His work continued to gain an appreciative audience and in 1948 he had his first solo exhibition at the Levy Gallery.
While known to many of the Surrealist who had relocated from war torn Europe, Dali, Duchamp, Ernst and Margritte he felt their works were more “black magic” than his. He did not produce any of the voyeuristic, overtly sexual images popular within the group and any connection was merely in the strange associations his works conjured up.
In the sixties he lost his brother and mother in quick succession, his productivity levels declined but he still continued to produce work. The last exhibition was aimed at children, the boxes deliberately shown low down and the opening night featured soft drinks and cake. In December 1972 he died of heart failure at the age of sixty-nine.
Cornell's work is still popular these days, links have been made with the use of commercial imagery of Pop Art during the Sixties. While Post Modernists like Damien Hurst, with his sheep and sharks in tanks, and Tracey Emin's unmade bed are merely expressions of Cornell's worlds, just outside the box.