Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
I first heard of Joseph Cornell’s ‘shadow boxes’ more than twenty five years ago when reading William Gibson’s speculative fiction novel Count Zero, set decades into the future; in it, a lost Cornell is revealed to be a fake, whilst a mysterious ‘maker’ is producing other works that resemble Cornell’s but which are clearly products of their time rather than his. Gibson’s description of the American’s works, with their hints of yearning, of time suspended and compressed, were entirely relevant to the narrative but also captivated me in andof themselves. It was some years before I saw a Cornell, in Washington, DC’s National Gallery; now, more than 80 of the artist’s assemblages – found, selected and arranged items, and, yes, those famous boxes – can be seen in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy. And for me it was a revelation.
Cornell is a little-known figure on this side of the Atlantic, and perhaps even on the other. He lived with his widowed, domineering mother and disabled brother in the New York of the 1930s to the 1960s, and worked as a travelling textile salesman, a job he hated. He enjoyed visiting the theatre, dance halls and the cinema and kept in touch with the art scene, but as New York grew up and reached out to the world, Cornell stayed put. He never left his home state, though he did eventually have the means to do so, and never married or had children. On the face of it, then, he perhaps mirrored the wider America, with its tendency to insularity and self-sufficiency. And yet…
Spending much of his spare time wandering local second-hand shops and flea markets, Cornell bought countless numbers of old books, periodicals, photographs, prints, scrapbooks, parlour games, toys and trinkets, from which he began to create a variety of carefully-cut collages that are startling and intriguing. He also gathered a vast amount of paper ephemera – used stamps, sent postcards, hotel advertisements, railway timetables, maps – which spoke of travel, foreign lands, faded empires and lost pasts. Afterwards, ensconced in his kitchen or, later, his basement, he proceeded to select, modify, assemble and display all of this material into works with thematic associations that are encapsulated in the subtitle of the RA’s exhibition – Wanderlust.
Cornell began virtual voyages, “journeying in his imagination across continents and centuries,” as the exhibition describes it, generated from this repository, in search of “the innocent wonder of our early discovery of the world”. Containers of all kinds hold multiple references to time, space and place in an ever-increasing intricacy of layers that belies their apparent simplicity. Many also address the preoccupations and worldview of childhood, perhaps in response to the limitations on Cornell’s own. He initially appropriated commercially available display cases, sample trays and the like but later learned carpentry from a neighbour so that he could make his own. This also allowed him to tailor each to its intended use, and to incorporate trays, drawers and hidden compartments, a physical substrate for the psychological levels he built upon them. They are all intriguing; some are astonishing.
The first box encountered on entering the exhibition is unusual in being quite representative, but it still projects (and contains) a sense of mystery and serves to introduce Cornell’s wider themes. In Palace (1943), a winter forest presses in behind the façade of an immense Renaissance-style building reminiscent of a royal residence from Europe’s gilded age; on closer inspection, each of its windows is a mirror, preventing any view inside and only reflecting its surroundings. At once many of Cornwell’s concerns come to the fore – the Old World and its grand ruling houses, faded elegance, the passage of the years. Curator Sarah Lea describes it as his “sleeping beauty” work; in its impassive stillness and suppressed mystery, it reminds me of both the Overlook Hotel from The Shining and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, and it comes as no surprise to see hotels specifically featuring in Cornell’s later work. His use of mirrors here makes a clear statement; elsewhere, Cornell plays with them and glass and notions of reflection, transparency and refraction.
The subject of time is also central to Object (Soap Bubble Set) (1941); a stream of bubbles, each containing a fossil, emerges from a real clay pipe, the momentary contrasting with the eternal and the placement of both nodding to Surrealism. Cornell knew Lee Miller, whose marriage to Surrealist Roland Penrose may have influenced her own experiments with the movement, but firmly rejected its more outré aspects, calling them “black magic” as against his own white.
Cornell’s simpler boxes are charming but also tantalising. A circular pillbox made of maps contains dozens of similarly-sized discs cut from photographs, pictures and more maps. With the delightful Tower of Babel and the Children of Israel (1938), a children’s game is created from a small red cylinder, a box lined with architectural plans and some red balls; the work comes with instructions as to how to ‘play’. Yet the religious title speaks of something more profound, letters have been cut out from a German Baedeker travel guidebook and the plans are of the great cultural institutions of Berlin’s Museumsinsel, which contain the nation’s treasures from the ancient world.
A good example of his more involved pieces is Museum (1949), for which Cornell filled a box with dozens of small paper cylinders that are in fact containers. Some can be opened, and are found to hold the kind of objects gathered by children, but others cannot – their contents create sounds when shaken, all except one, which is silent. On a similar note, Untitled (Music Box) (1947) comprises a box about the size and shape of a contemporary coffee can that is entirely sealed with wrapping paper and plastered with postage stamps. It, too, makes a noise when shaken but has never – I assume – been opened so the source of that sound remains unknowable.
But it was with his more complex works that his intentions and interests were fully demonstrated.
Cornell often revisited themes and indeed individual works, creating new iterations of earlier objects that are together known as his ‘series’. Each of the Hotels series starts with an old hotel advert or poster and extrapolates a story from it. Thus with Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l’Observatoire (1954), a tiled advert for that place has a pillar placed in front of it with a length of chain hanging nearby, alluding to the mythological princess’s fate. Birds were also a source of inspiration, and for the Aviaries series Cornell fabricated a number of boxes that evoke different emotions – which for me included hushed wonder in the case of an owl cut-out perched amongst tree branches behind deep blue glass to simulate night-time. And if Cornell was always concerned with time, with a range of other works that use star maps, balls standing for planets and similar, he soon expanded the scale of his investigations to the cosmological with the vast extension of time that that connotes.
In many ways living life somewhat at one remove, Cornell created several boxes as tributes to people he admired including artists and dancers. But he also applied the same treatment to figures of legend or simply invented the person themselves. He fashioned an entire life in The Crystal Cage: Portrait of Berenice (1934-1967). A whimsical fictional character, Berenice is a young girl conducting scientific research whose fascination with a Chinese pagoda leads to her parents buying it for her and transporting it to America to become her home. Blending original text, found objects and images, Cornell filled an entire valise with the resulting history, even though it was destined originally only for an experimental, privately-published magazine. The concept is that of the epistolary novel, which was at that time fifty years old at least if one takes Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a starting point, but from today’s viewpoint one can also make connections to everything from the elaborate boxed ‘archive’ or ‘vault’ book tie-ins to films that include facsimile documents, through the methods used to create eponymous volumes of Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books, to the painstakingly falsified pocket contents of ‘William Martin’, the invented officer at the heart of the wartime Allied deception codenamed Operation Mincemeat.
What astonishes throughout is the richness of allusion embodied in Cornell’s stories of elsewhere, and how he made great leaps of time and distance – to far-off lands, civilisations he never saw and people he never knew – yet contained them all in the same small space of a box. Importantly, although the exhibition reminded me immediately of Edward Hopper and his paintings and both artists lived somewhat insular lives, Cornell and his works lack entirely Hopper’s stark loneliness and are neither depressing nor sorrowful, but rather alive and enticing; they speak of an intelligent, enquiring, precocious and romantic mind giving itself free reign. That said, it seems to me that much of the motivation for Cornell is found in the simple facts of his life. His works are therefore easily seen as being about escape – he couldn’t physically, his responsibilities being too much, and did so instead through his boxes.
But in the end, perhaps, Cornell comments on our own lives too – we all, in one way or another, live in boxes, glazed to the outside, which others can look into but cannot truly reach. If that is true, enter this wonderfully rich world and open yourself up. Who knows what you might find?
‘Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust’ ran at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1 from 4 July to 27 September 2015
Posted 12 December 2020. A version of this piece appears as a blog post on 2 July 2015