Surreal alchemy with ephemeral fossils: Cornell’s Object (Soap Bubble Set) of 1941. Picture: Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation
Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust
Royal Academy of Arts, London W1
The American artist Joseph Cornell, self-taught and consequently rather singular, made all manner of assemblages, comprised mostly of items from the vast archive, a sort of personal museum, that he kept in the basement of his suburban house at 3708 Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, New York. But before we get to these wondrous collages and constructions – before we gaze at the owls and the cockatoos, at the pharmacy bottles filled with sand and butterfly wings, at the collection of ephemera relating to the life of Ludwig II of Bavaria – let us turn our attention to an altogether more commonplace-seeming item: a parcel.
Untitled (Music Box) was made by Cornell in 1947 and as the curators of the new exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy point out, it is surely one of the most enigmatic items he ever put together. The piece consists of a small rectangular box, over which has been pasted a palimpsest of texts, maps and postage stamps, as if it had been sent twice around the world and back again. This intrepid parcel is sealed. It cannot be opened. Locked inside it, however, is an unknown number of rattles and bells; pick it up, and you will hear them jingle and jangle and generally clatter. It is quite literally a music box, one that combines two of the artist’s many obsessions: travel and sound.
In the 21st century, this box is behind glass; we must take its contents on trust. But although this is a pity – the single frustration involved in this fine show is that we can play with none of the artist’s toys the way he intended us to – it is also, in the case of this object, befitting. Cornell, too, had to take things on trust. His love of Europe, like his fascination with Egypt, was based on nothing more than books, postcards and talk, for he never left America, hardly even New York State. The parcel, which we might call his proxy if only it had been to any of the African countries whose stamps adorn it, is wrapped in his imaginary wanderings. It represents both what he knows and what he doesn’t. Like him, it is both playful and mysterious; its heart, like his, cannot be cracked open. There is something friendly and democratic about its yellowing exterior, but this parcel is solitary, too: a thing apart. It is about as concise a symbol of Cornell’s life and work as you could wish for.
In America, Cornell, who died in 1972, is widely loved; ditto in the international auction houses, where his work fetches eye-popping prices. In Britain, however, he is not well known: the last major exhibition of his art to reach these shores (it came to the Whitechapel Gallery in London) took place almost 35 years ago, and our public collections hold only two of his pieces. “Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust” may not change this overnight; something about the Royal Academy’s Sackler Galleries – they, too, are sealed off – seems to work against the building of excitement, and there are considerable difficulties involved in displaying his work. (His shadow boxes – the miniature worlds that represent the apotheosis of his career – have glass fronts; if the public is to get close enough to see the extraordinary detail each one involves, the gallery has no choice but to put glass behind yet more glass.) But surely it deserves to effect some kind of shift. Cornell was a wildly prolific artist, yet in this beautifully unfussy, almost minimalist survey of about 80 of his boxes and collages, you will find not a single dud, nor even a minor work. Such restrained curation. Such exquisite (and rarely lent) pieces. I don’t think this exhibition’s achievement can be overstated.
Cornell was born in Nyack, upstate New York, in 1903, the eldest of four children. In 1917, his textile salesman father died, leaving the family with large debts; Cornell was obliged to follow him into the same trade, travelling by train every day from the family’s rented house in Queens where he lived with his mother and his brother, Robert – who suffered from cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair – to his office near Madison Square. In his free time, he browsed in bookshops, visited galleries, watched movies and attended the ballet. He also collected things: already, he had begun to make scrapbooks and keep “dossiers” on public and historical figures who attracted his interest. Then, in 1931, everything changed. Having lost his job in the Depression, Cornell wandered into the Julien Levy Gallery in search of a particular photograph for one of his collections. Soon afterwards he joined its roster of artists, having by now – apparently out of nowhere – produced several collages of his own. The following year he was shown there alongside Dalì, Picasso and Ernst in an exhibition entitled “Surréalisme”. His career had begun.
The Royal Academy exhibition makes relatively little of this unlikely start, and as it proceeds, you realise why. Cornell was certainly eccentric: a devout Christian Scientist who lived with his mother, who mooned over unattainable women but probably died a virgin. (“Gaunt, pearl-pale and surprised, he usually sat just a little apart,” wrote his friend Dorothea Tanning, the artist who was married to Max Ernst. “. . . he spoke chaste, cobwebby things about my drawings.”) But he was no outsider. It’s not only that he knew the likes of, say, Andy Warhol, who once came to tea with Mrs Cornell and Robert. His boxes often explicitly reflect contemporary movements in art. Untitled (Multiple Cubes), constructed in 1946-48, is a white wooden grid filled with similarly white cubes, a clear nod to Mondrian’s abstraction, with which Cornell was much preoccupied at the time. Assembled roughly in 1967, Untitled (Object with Swan), a hand-held mirror on which glides a diminutive plastic swan, was inspired by the Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova. But it is the wit of Duchamp that it brings first to mind.
The exhibition is arranged thematically, which seems as good a way as any to order Cornell (it begins with “Play and Experiment”, moves through “Collecting and Classification” and “Observation and Exploration”, and concludes with “Longing and Reverie”). But ultimately you will have no need for the words on the wall. Make of Cornell what you will. He has always appealed to writers: Octavio Paz wrote a poem for him which Elizabeth Bishop, who made her own shadow boxes by way of a homage to the artist, translated; the American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer edited a volume of fiction and poetry inspired by him with contributions from Rick Moody and Lydia Davis, among others, which was published in 2001; more recently, Gabriel Josipovici wrote a novel, Hotel Andromeda, based on his life. More than any other artist I know, his work allows the mind to wander, to free-associate, to attach its own stories to what the eye is seeing. He wanted to restore in us a sense of play and wonder. What he absolutely did not want was for the critic to babble on about meaning. He presents to us great vistas: whole worlds, entire planets. Why shrink them? Why drag the smiling visitor back to earth?
Still, playing the critic, I must say something. I moved quickly through the early collages, deft though they are. For me, Cornell’s excitement lies not in scissors and paper, but in what he called his “ecstatic voyaging”, a criss-cross journey that takes in every kind of stuff – truly, he is the Steptoe of the art world – but also a deep sense of time (he is mad both for planets and for geology). When he combines the two, it’s a heady mix. L’Éygpte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode: cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle (1940) is a “bottle museum”, made for a dancer who shared her name with the queen of the Nile, its contents touching on Egypt’s flora, fauna and archeology: a neat twist on the vanity case the dancer might have carried to her engagements. In similar vein, Untitled (The Life of Ludwig II of Bavaria), made between 1941 and 1952, is a small case, in which can be found a biography of the eccentric king and other objects relating to his life: a paper mausoleum by any other name. Object (Soap Bubble Set) of 1941 consists of a clay pipe from which there blows a series of “bubbles”, each one of which contains an X-ray-like image of a fossil or shell, geological time disappearing in the blink of an eye.
Cornell liked to work in series: the aviaries and dovecotes, the slot-machines and shrines. I was drawn to the blue tones of Untitled (Owl Habitat), which dates from the 1940s. This piece is outwardly simple, yet there is such diligence here, such love. He was always out gathering pine needles and grass, working like “an apothecary of old”. A Parrot for Juan Gris (1953-54) shows his instinctive grasp of cubism but with his own twist. The maps behind the cockatoo give the sense that it is only temporarily on its perch, that soon it will fly away – the lithograph that is the bird seems more than usually lifelike, even cocky. Sometimes the series collide, morphing into something else altogether. On the way out is Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson (c.1953), a severe but numinous box, in which we find the cage of a prison, whether for human being or bird, and beyond it a window filled with azure sky: an aviary that is a kind of shrine. Like the object with which I began, this construction seems to say as much about Cornell as it does about its ostensible subject. As a boy, he saw Houdini. As an adult, everything he made was an escape hatch. In his basement workshop, he left Queens far behind.
Until 27 September. royalacademy.org.uk