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  • Articles by Sonali

    Joseph Cornell - Wanderlust

    ‘Wanderlust’ at the Royal Academy is a fascinating collection of shadow boxes, collages and films by Joseph Cornell. Born in 1903, Joseph Cornell was self-taught without any formal training - but his work has been inspirational to artists such as Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst.  The title ‘Wanderlust’ implies an interest in travel, and many of Cornell’s works reference Europe; but he never went far beyond his birthplace in Nyack, New York, US.

    Cornell lived at home in order to help take care of his brother Robert who suffered from cerebral palsy.  He was initially employed as a textiles salesmen, and would spend his lunch break in New York’s Museums and bookshops - where he would read about Europe, and buy things from second-hand shops (vintage trinkets, stamps, Baedeker maps), which would later furnish his trademark shadow boxes.

    In 1931 Cornell visited the Julian Levy Gallery, when he encountered the collages of Surrealist artist Max Ernst - and he was inspired to make collages himself. Cornell was influenced by the Surrealist movement but his collages and shadow boxes also have a childlike, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality. They were designed with his brother Robert in mind, in order to keep him entertained.

    Cornell’s shadow boxes are made from hardwood and glass fronted, a bit like a picture frame with extra depth. And peering into each box is like examining a museum exhibit. Here Cornell creates a beguiling poetic landscape using his found objects, within the confines of a box frame.

    The exhibition is arranged according to his various interests – astronomy, science, the ballet and ballerinas. Cornell couldn’t bear to part with (i.e. sell) his work –which is an example of his idiosyncratic personality, that animates the exhibition. Julian Levy advised him to make several copies of each shadow box, leading to a series or family of works.

    In ‘Medici Princess’(1948), which belongs to his ‘Medici Slot Machine Series’, there is a rather regal and sombre portrait of Cosimo de Medici’s daughter, by Bronzino; surrounded on either side by multiple mini portraits of her siblings, arranged at jaunty angles – which serve to bring this High Art picture back into realm of the everyday. This was a precursor to Pop Art which followed a decade later.

    His shadow box entitled ‘Pharmacy’(1943) is a homage to collecting and arranging objects, and to museum classification. This whimsical installation consists of little glass medicine jars arranged in rows inside a cabinet. Cornell was a Christian Scientist and was unable to consume medicine; instead his glass jars contain (colourful) objects steeped in associations that might feed the soul - including shells and feathers referring to travel.

    Cornell has borrowed ideas from prevailing art movements – for instance, ‘Toward the Blue Peninsula’ (1953), a poignant but claustrophobic tribute to poet Emily Dickinson, is Minimalistic in style; many of his works are splashed with Yves Klein Blue. He had close ties to New York’s vibrant artistic community. But Cornell definitely had a singular vision and his originality and resourcefulness are commendable. ‘Wanderlust’ is the first exhibition of Cornell’s work in the UK for several decades; and his delicate shadow boxes, a journey into his imagination - rich in nostalgia, texture and gentle colour, are a real highlight.

    Ends 27 September 2015

    Joseph Cornell, Pharmacy, 1943 
    Box construction, 38.7 x 30.5 x 7.9 cm 
    Collection of Paul Schärer 
    Photo Dominique Uldry 
    (c) The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015 

    Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38 
    Box Construction, 25.4 x 23.5 x 5.4 cm 
    Collection of Robert Lehrman, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman 
    Photo The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman. Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC

    Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


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