Below: Palace, 1943; Box construction: Glass-paned, stained wood box with photomechanical reproduction, mirror, spray-painted twigs, wood and shaved bark, 26.7 x 50.5 x 13 cm; The Menil Collection, Houston Photo: The Menil Collection, Houston. Photography: Hickey-Robertson © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

Imaginary Voyages Of The Mind

3rd July 2015

Wanderlust, at the Royal Academy, aims to introduce the work of American Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) to a new generation in Europe – a continent which inspired him but which he never visited.

Jill Glenn went to the opening.

While Joseph Cornell is very much a household name on the other side of the Atlantic, it’s fair to say that he’s less well-known over here. Born in upstate New York in the early part of the 20th century, he lived modestly and has long been characterised as reclusive. With no formal art training, he hovered at the edges of new movements, adhering to none and working in his own style – and the popular perception is of an Outsider with a capital O. Yet, as Sarah Lea, co-curator of Wanderlust, explains, nothing could be further from the truth. He was a private man, who rarely gave interviews, but not necessarily a shy one. He counted many contemporary artists as friends, and exhibited regularly alongside Surrealists and Abstract Impressionists, while maintaining artistic independence from each.

The trouble with Cornell – if you can call it trouble – is that he’s very hard to pin down. One of the 20th century’s most innovative artistic practitioners, his work has elements of sculpture and painting, collage and story-telling. It’s beguiling and quirky, full of unexpected juxtapositions and flights of fancy that reveal his vast range of interests and his rich, imaginative interior life.

He deplored the focus on personality rather than art, but it’s impossible not to see the two as interconnected. He was an individual whose passions and obsessions would offer a field day to a psychoanalyst, and whose early experiences shaped the course of his life more than is true for most. His mother had trained as a kindergarten teacher before her marriage, and Joseph and his siblings had an idyllic childhood, well supplied with educational games and toys and encouraged to wonder and to learn. He ever after thought childhood a ‘state of grace’, and it featured powerfully in his work.

When he was 13, though, his father died, leaving debt and difficulty for the family. Joseph, the eldest, was enabled to go to college in Massachusetts (one of the very few occasions on which he left New York State) but he was ill and homesick, and returned in 1921 without graduating. He took on the care of his younger brother Robert who had cerebral palsy, and he also became the family breadwinner, working 9-5 as a textile salesman, commuting daily to Madison Square, Manhattan. His morning and evening walks across the city, and his lunchtime browsings through secondhand bookshops, penny arcades, department stores and art galleries became a habitual source of delight, and it was at this time that he first started to collect little keepsakes – tickets, playbills, buttons, clay pipes and watch springs, for example – that would later feature in his work. His journey to being an artist was not typical; he himself said that his first love was collecting (which in its turn reflected his love of the city) and that his work was the natural outcome of his collecting. He sat in cafés, eating cake (he had a notoriously sweet tooth), people-watching and reading. He was a genuine polymath, a real Renaissance man – but he sounds such a modern chap, too.

He began putting small pieces of art together from his collected objects probably in the late 1920s or early 1930s, round about the time that the family moved to 3708 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, Queens, where he was to remain – along with his mother and brother, both of whom predeceased him by only a couple of years – for the rest of his life.

In early 1931 he came across collage (then a highly avant-garde art form, virtually unknown even within the New York art scene) by Max Ernst in the Julien Levy Gallery – and it was a key moment in his development. He started collage work of his own, and within months was exhibiting in Levy’s Surréalisme exhibition, before a solo show at the gallery.

Although he knew and associated with many Surrealists, and their influence can be seen in his creations, he did not share all their preoccupations. He disliked their emphasis on the unconscious, for example, and on sex and violence. In his early 20s he had become a Christian Scientist, and considered the writings of Mary Baker Eddy to be, after the Bible, the most important ever published.

Cornell wasn’t the first artist to use assemblage, but, Sarah Lea explains in the introductory essay to the illustrated catalogue, he was ‘the first to make the appropriation and arrangement of found material the exclusive apparatus of his work’. In the 1930s he began to make the ‘shadow boxes’ for which he is best known. These glass-fronted constructions contain intimate arrangements of found objects and paper ephemera: effectively three-dimensional collages. They satisfied all his artistic and creative impulses, and, for the rest of his life, absorbed his attention. He developed several series of these shadow boxes, along different themes – Hotels, Pharmacies, Aviaries, Dovecotes, Night Skies and Observatories – that show repeated themes and patterns, each adjusted and mutated by his responses to the changing world.

The central paradox of Joseph Cornell is that he never left the US, but the overriding preoccupation of his artistic output is travel. He lived in a state of yearning, always willing to deny reality in favour of dreams and personal interpretation.

His work is both of its time and timelessly atmospheric. It’s also very ‘now’; the contemporary compulsion for up-cycling second hand and vintage pieces is not a million miles away from Cornell’s focus on found objects. You could do this sort of thing at home – though you’d be hard pushed to create the shimmering depth of connection that he brings to all his pieces.

When he died (alone; he never married, although he had many passionate, platonic friendships with dancers and film stars) he left behind him a vast and astonishing body of work, including assemblages, collages and ‘box constructions’. He had also amassed an extensive personal archive: tens of thousands of pieces from found objects to paper ephemera, that reflect his interests in the arts – opera and ballet, cinema and theatre – and in history, poetry, astronomy and ornithology. He was also an avant-garde filmmaker, splicing found footage together with his own soundtrack.

The exhibition is divided into four areas, thematic rather than chronological: Play and Experiment, Collecting and Classification, Observation and Exploration, and Longing and Reverie. They neatly summarise – in the abstract, at least – approaches and activities that were important to Cornell throughout his life.

I’d recommend the audio guide if you want to be sure that you’re not missing any of the allusions or connections in the key works. Cornell himself, on the other hand, would no doubt be horrified at the very existence of such a guide. Profoundly non-elitist, he genuinely wanted people to approach with an open mind.

I could have called this article Shadow Boxing or Boxing Clever; in fact, I could have called it many things, but these were the two that most resonated. In the end, though, I settled for Imaginary Voyages of the Mind because it seemed best to encapsulate the questing curiosity that underpinned Cornell’s personality and practice. Not only does he invite you to enter another world, he allows you to devise it for yourself. The clues are there, but it’s your imagination, your experience, that constructs the story.

Wanderlust has been three years in the making, and has brought together 80 pieces that create both a coherent whole and hint at the extent of Cornell’s output. It’s a long overdue celebration of an incomparable artist, a man the New York Times called “a poet of light; an architect of memory-fractured rooms and a connoisseur of stars, celestial and otherwise.”

The disadvantage, of course, is the physical size of Cornell’s work. Many of these pieces are tiny, and all bear sustained attention to detail (the sort of sustained attention that Cornell himself gave in the process of creation: if something is there, it’s there for a reason). I predict bottlenecks in the Sackler Gallery. Don’t be put off, though. This is a fascinating insight into a man and a century and a weird, wonderfully eclectic world view.

Joseph Cornell: ‘Wanderlust’ continues at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, to 27 September

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