The little world of Joseph Cornell

Following on from Richard Diebenkorn, the Royal Academy again allows us to discover another American artist, Joseph Cornell (1903–1972), well-known across the pond but little known in the UK. Also, like Diebenkorn, the last UK exhibition of Cornell’s works was held at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1981. I was able to become acquainted with his precious boxes at the Royal Academy prior to the official opening of the exhibition ‘Joseph Cornell Wanderlust’, presenting 80 works on 4 July.

Exhibition curator Sarah Lea called Cornell the UK equivalent of Peter Blake (born 1932), who I subsequently learnt had made works paying homage to Cornell. Cornell had diverse cultural interests, was an avid reader and had no formal training in art. However, he was no outsider; Cornell exhibited early and was prolific. He had two concomitant retrospectives during his lifetime, one in Pasadena, California and one at Guggenheim, in New York in 1967.

Joseph Cornell,
Object (Soap Bubble Set), 1941.

Cornell was associated with surrealism but like other artists he possibly didn’t like being categorised and exhibited with Dadaists and Surrealists, as well as Abstract Expressionists for instance. There are some clearly surrealist works, with clear references to Magritte, and “Dada-infused”, in my view. Cornell was friends with Marcel Duchamp, which made me think of Duchamp’s ‘Boîte-en-valise’, or box in a suitcase Duchamp made in 1935-41, a portable miniature monograph including 69 reproductions of Duchamp’s own work. 

Joseph Cornell,
Naples, c. 1942.

Cornell’s personal life gives us insights into his work. Cornell was raised in a prosperous Dutch family but became the family breadwinner after his father’s death. Sarah Lea dismissed the myth that Cornell never left his house. He loved New York and started collecting found objects there. But he never left America. Cornell was an imaginary traveller, or an “armchair voyager”, in his own words. The word is Cornell died a virgin, in love with unattainable women and friends with artists’ wives.

I would describe Cornell’s works as delicately feminine and fragile objects that a little girl would collect in secret boxes. Sarah Lea highlighted it was difficult for collectors to loan and separate from their works for the RA exhibition, as they are on a domestic scale and have become intimate works for collectors. Cornell’s works reminded me when I built board games with paper to play with my sister as children. My sister and I cut and collected pictures imagining our dream house, like Cornell imagined Naples, collecting photos, prints, and articles. I would not necessarily revisit ‘Joseph Cornell Wanderlust’ but I think art lovers need to see it once – showing until 27 September 2015.


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