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Guide to the Strange Boxes of Joseph Cornell

Updated on April 13, 2014

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.

Soap Bubbles
Soap Bubbles

Cornell's Boxes

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.

Habitat 1943
Habitat 1943
Solar Set - 1956
Solar Set - 1956

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.

Bacall - 1945
Bacall - 1945
Cockatoo and Corks - 1948
Cockatoo and Corks - 1948

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.

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    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Unusual but interesting. Thank you for sharing.

    • Bob Ewing profile image

      Bob Ewing 7 years ago from New Brunswick

      Thanks for this stimulating journey.

    • knell63 profile image

      knell63 7 years ago from Umbria, Italy

      Hi both, thanks for your comments, I agree his work is a little strange but I like the way he creates little memory worlds, as if he captures dreams. Because they are all antique looking objects it adds to the quality of the pieces as well.

    • Kaie Arwen profile image

      Kaie Arwen 7 years ago

      Habitat is beautiful................. thank you for the introduction to Cornell and his art!

    • donna bamford profile image

      donna bamford 7 years ago from Canada

      Very interesting Knell. How's Spring in Umbria? We're having an early Spring. The magnolia and tulips and cherry trees are all in bloom and they usually don't bloom till may. Today is cold and rainy however but we're hoping for twenty again this week. Talk to you soon. Ciao for now. Donna

    • knell63 profile image

      knell63 7 years ago from Umbria, Italy

      Hi Kaie, thanks I really like tha pharmacy ones, something about those little bottles I love. but I know what you mean with Habitat too.

    • knell63 profile image

      knell63 7 years ago from Umbria, Italy

      Hi Donna, Glad you liked his work. Weather here has been nice today, but yeaterday was all wet and cold. hopefully we'll get more of the warm and less of the wet stuff

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      VEry interesting. I saw one of those boxes in an art museum: you really have to see it in person, close up, to get the whole feel of it. Unforgettable and somehow nostalgic in a very evocative way. It makes you feel the ineffable. Thanks for this hub. I wouldn't want this artist to be forgotten.

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 7 years ago from UK

      This is great Neil. I've never come across this artist before, but I really like the examples you've included. There's something of the doll's house about them. Fascinating.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

      I can relate to a particular liking of ballerinas. :D

      I like his art, especially "Bacall." Thanks for making me aware of this excellent artist. Nice gallery.

    • knell63 profile image

      knell63 7 years ago from Umbria, Italy

      Hi James, I also find ballerinas scary, daintly little women who walk on their toes. It's not right.

      Thanks Paradise, your're right they do have a real nostalgic feel to them.

      Glad you liked them as well Amanda.

    • Internetwriter62 profile image

      Internetwriter62 6 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      That's fascinating, I am an admirer of Surrealistic art. I also love Surreal photography. I never imagined Dali to be the type of person to intimidate anyone, that is sad, especially since I admire his work greatly. Very interesting hub. Rated it up.

    • knell63 profile image

      knell63 6 years ago from Umbria, Italy

      Thanks Inter, Dali was a strange ranger for sure, with a renowned bad temper and for speaking his mind. Still it doesn't detract from his fascinating take on the world. Pleased you like Cornell's work too.

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 3 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      A very interesting look at the work of Joseph Cornell, an artist who seems to capture the essence of "enigma." His found objects, arranged in a structured grid and enclosed in a case, assume the presence of artifacts with history and significance. There's an implied story to each of these curious creations - as you have noted - and the viewer is challenged to invent a narrative. Cornell was ahead of his time. Voted up and shared.

    • profile image

      Disney 2 years ago

      Free info like this is an apple from the tree of knwogedle. Sinful?

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