Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust review – exquisite curiosities
Source:theguardian Author:Royal Academy Date: 2015-07-10 Size:
Joseph Cornell (1903-72) had the mind of a visionary and the methods of an archivist. He accumulated odds and ends from the real world – a bird’s egg, a marble, a foreign stamp……

Joseph Cornell, Palace, 1943 (detail): ‘like the phantom land in a fairytale’

Joseph Cornell (1903-72) had the mind of a visionary and the methods of an archivist. He accumulated odds and ends from the real world – a bird’s egg, a marble, a foreign stamp, a thimble – and assembled them into enigmatic dreams. The little boxes for which he’s famous, when filled with arrangements of tiny fragments and fronted with glass, convey an intense but mysterious sense of meaning – somewhere between reliquaries and riddles.

Poetical theatres, he called them, and so they sometimes are. Palace, which opens this first British show in more than 30 years, is a silvery stage set, created simply by inserting a mirror behind an antique illustration of a palace and cutting out the windows so that the spectral brilliance gleams through. Brushwood rises like an enchanted forest in the midnight shadows behind and everything seems on the brink of disappearing, like the phantom land in a fairytale.

Related: Remembering Joseph Cornell

So exquisite and simple, it heralds the childlike appeal of everything that follows. Cornell’s first dealer – for all the tales of his untrained naivety and reclusive life in New York, Cornell was extremely well connected in the art world – described his works as toys for adults. Many of them work like slot machines or games, with moving parts and quaint rules that can’t easily be followed, such as the bewildering Object/Tower of Babel and Children of Israel, in which one is supposed to get the children of Israel – represented by red beads – past the little cork tower presumably without knocking it over.

If the game seems simple enough, the object is not. Covered with antique maps and tiny drawings, references to Baedeker and the museums of Berlin, it amounts to a souvenir of places that Cornell would never see. There is an air of nostalgia and yearning to his art; a love of what he called “the light of other days”, from ancient Egypt to his own lost childhood.

Cornell’s Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943

The past Cornell conjured was arcane even in his day. He was fascinated by the 19th-century soprano Henriette Sontag and by mad king Ludwig of Bavaria, archiving his life in a neat little suitcase. He loved stars of both varieties. There are boxes devoted to Galileo, to the movements of planets and celestial light; and there are shrines to his heroines, who included the Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy, the Austrian dancer Tilly Losch and, in the 1950s, Audrey Hepburn (who sent the box he made for her straight back).

Cornell’s contemporaries hailed him as America’s first home-grown surrealist and this show contains several gifts for Max Ernst, as well as rather too many Ernst-inspired collages. This is the least interesting aspect of his art. What he did with the boxes was to combine painting, collage and sculpture into miniature alternative worlds. You peer through the glass into these alien places, and what you see may be both captivating and incomprehensible.

The Royal Academy show is a concise survey of his work, with more than 80 works theatrically spotlit in the subfusc gloom of the Sackler Galleries, emphasising the outlandish aspects of Cornell’s personality and art. They were made in the basement of the undistinguished house he shared with his widowed mother and disabled brother in Flushing, New York. And though much has been made of the biographical elements of his art – Cornell practically lived on sugar: sweet wrappers glitter inside glass bottles on his pseudo-pharmacy shelves – what they mainly convey are his solitary passions.

The Observatory sequence, with their midnight blue skies, clouds fashioned out of bleached wood and planetary movements represented by bangles and curtain hooks strung on tiny railings, are like 3D diagrams made by a child. The multitude of tiny pigeonholes, each filled with a white ball positioned at a different but equally unfathomable angle, is like a puzzle that only a savant could solve.

‘A bewitching vision’: Cornell’s Untitled (Tilly Losch), 1935-38

And what is the latent emotion in the “portrait” of Tilly Losch? A young girl in a crinoline rises high above snow-covered mountains, borne up on fragile strings, her dress the basket of an invisible hot-air balloon. It is a most bewitching vision of weightless balletic grace yet there is something sinister in the red bead that dangles from her hands. It feels like Cornell’s own private emblem.

Related: Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust review – like being lost in a wondrous Victorian attic

The Medici children lost in time, encased behind sepia-tinted glass; the facades of exotic hotels where Cornell never stayed; the book wrapped in blue velvet and sealed, its contents never to be revealed: there is both secrecy and nostalgia in these containments. The boxes preserve a memory, an act of worship or the ghost of a hope. Look at the dressing room for Watteau’s lonely pierrot Gilles, done out in uplifting harlequin paper.

Most poignant is the memorial box for Emily Dickinson, Toward the Blue Peninsula, inspired by the Amherst bedroom where she wrote her poetry. The box is all white, and half-caged, but with a window giving on to a twilight blue sky. Sky and title both come from the poem that begins “It might be lonelier/ Without the Loneliness/ I’m so accustomed to my fate”. An analogy might be drawn between these two isolated artists, and the fragile scale of the work they made, but Cornell would have shied away from any comparison with such a singular genius. His work is not just modest in size, it is also humble.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern