This summer the RA brought Joseph Cornell, the 20th century kleptomaniac-cum-artist to London’s attention, with a beautifully crafted exhibition now residing in Vienna’s august Kunsthistorisches Museum. Born in 1903, by the tender age of 13 Cornell’s father had died, leaving him as the family’s sole breadwinner. Thus restricted by duty to the city, his lunchtime jaunts around New York neighbourhoods over the next two decades would feed his imagination of new worlds to represent in art, collecting ephemera which he made initially into collages and later, meticulously arranged shadow boxes. Commonly misunderstood as a Surrealist, he was connected to the movement if not really part of it; launched in to the world of the avant-garde through the Julian Levy Gallery, which was the first place to exhibition Surrealist art in New York, Cornell shared their radical techniques of juxtaposition, chance and wordplay, but was disturbed by the latent eroticism and violence in their works, preferring to use surreal imagery to reawaken childhood innocence, which was further complicated by his habit of conflating it with scientific exploration.
The exhibition explores these dominant themes in his work, which rub shoulders occasionally but are essentially unrelated: the preservation of childhood play and innocence and the cosmological world vision, the Renaissance-Enlightenment project to understand our world through natural philosophy and scientific advancement. An early collage on display in the exhibition – Story without a name, for Max Ernst – from the 1930s sees Cornell return to the stuff of his childhood, drawing on weird and wonderful black and white prints from children’s Victorian literature, with imagery of a hot air balloon bobbing over the sea, swans flying into the moon, a hang lighting a candle, or pointing towards a butterfly, or two children on a staircase which is on fire, passing a bucket between them. Le Voyageur dans le Glaces (Jouet Surrealiste) activates a childhood-sense of play, based on a thaumatrope, a 19th century pre-cinema device used for animated entertainment: a set of discs on sticks (looking rather like lollipops) with black and white stills of images of movement on one side (a man running, jumping or fencing), and an image from the natural world on the other (lightning, shooting stars); this is inserted into a basic mechanical device which spins the stick very quickly, juxtaposing the two images like a flicker book. This game does more than make us rediscover play; it uses the visual part of our brains to introduce notions of man in his relation to the world at large.
However, it is the shadow boxes for which Cornell is best known, and they are shown in abundance in this exhibition. The box construction, which he often created series of, offered the spontaneity of placing together related objects without the structure of a relief sculpture. Cornell drew on a huge range of influences and themes for the subject matter: juxtaposing Renaissance paintings of Medici princes and princesses with the cabinetry of the penny arcade games he played on Coney Island during his youth, creating shrine-like encounters in which the gaze of the viewer is met levelly by that of the young people from the past; a Hotel series, combining the romance of travel and the Old World of Europe which hotels represented to Cornell, with mythology and constellations to hint at the hotel as a microcosm of the universe at large. The resultant feeling in the viewer is a kind of unfulfilled yearning, underlined by Cornell’s use of old typography, the very wanderlust that gives its name to this exhibition.
Cornell’s fascination with the cosmos which is evidenced in works such as Soap Bubble Set, Observatory: Corona Borealis Casement, and Cassiopeia, and treating his boxes as metaphorical spaces in which multiple scales, time and infinities can exist, crops up throughout the exhibition, but ultimately for such a massive subject it’s not explored or explicated in nearly enough depth, and it’s the childhood strands that wins through in this exhibition, hands down. The bigger world views are simply too massive and here, too generalised, to really feel you’ve understood it. But the nostalgia for an easier life, an innocent life, is palpable in so many of his works. An Untitled work from 1933, a tiny box, the size of a 2p piece with its contents spilled out – a spring, a metal ball, a tiny sea snail shell and inlaid in the lid something very detailed and intricate, possibly a map – minutely exemplifies the je ne sais quoi that makes Cornell’s art so irresistible: it essentially mimics that inexplicable childhood practice of collecting bits and bobs, magpie-like, without know why you are attracted to them. Visiting this exhibition is like coming upon a shoe box stuffed full of these old bits of crap that you’d hidden at the back of the wardrobe ten years ago, and as you take out each object and examine it, it makes you nostalgic, even sad, remembering the child you were, not quite the same person you are now but related through time on a fragile thread of remembrance and emotion. This urge to play, to collect, and the way everything for children is infused with specialness is ultimately what Cornell kept alive for us, and continues to do to this day
PS. I’ve barely scratched the surface with this review: Cornell was also fascinated by the biographies of great artists, ballet dancers, poets etc, and showed an immensely romantic sensibility. He was also one of the great pioneers of experimental surrealist cinema, something for which he doesn’t get enough credit, and I urge you to go and discover him for yourself.
Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust is on at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna until January 10th 2016