Review: Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust, Royal Academy of Arts

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The Royal Academy has opened a new exhibition on one of the more intriguing figures of 20th Century art. Joseph Cornell was an American artist who focused on creating and assembling box constructions – contained created worlds restricted within the confines of glass-fronted boxes.

Joseph never travelled, never left his native United States, yet his boxes, his worlds, are filled with the wonder of travel – the ‘Wanderlust’ that the title of this exhibition refers to. And despite never travelling, the emotional power as well as the accuracy and the detail in his worlds is extraordinary.

Joseph diligently collected books, articles and photographs on the wonders of the world from his rummaging in junk and antique shops. And in the house he shared with his mother and brother until their deaths in the 1960s, Joseph’s rooms were filled with folders cataloguing all the ephemera he collected. And all this detail, all this information, Joseph poured into his trademark boxes.

Joseph Cornell, 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

Cutting out pictures and shapes from the reams of printed paper and photographs in his files, Joseph built these up with matter such as sand or paint, grids and spirals, to create his scenes. Scenes of dainty women floating away in hot air balloons, parrots on their perches in cages, palaces surrounded by forests and romantic seashores.

Yet these boxes remain sealed, the glass lids fixed and closed. The worlds Joseph created always remaining out of reach, untouchable.

This show is the first exhibition in the UK of Joseph’s work for almost 35 years. And as much of Joseph’s works is in private hands rather than on public display, this is a rare opportunity to see many of his unusual and fascinating pieces.

The boxes are startling. Fragile and emotive. Yet for all the creativity and brilliance in Joseph’s work, there is something unsettling too.

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There’s a real man-child feel to the innocence and naivety in the works, the whimsical dreaminess of some of the pieces – of the stories being told about overseas places that Joseph never visited, of the children’s toys that rattle and shake, the source of their mysterious sounds unidentifiable in the sealed containers, and boxes filled with vials of coloured sand.

And when this is paired with the discipline in creating box after box after box, the forensic detail in each piece and the patient steady hands that must have been needed to put these delicate pieces together, the obsessive repetition and use of boxes… well, there’s something quite unnerving.

It feels all a bit Stephen King, as if stumbling into Joseph’s cellar studio filled with these endless boxes of contrived, dream-like worlds would be the point in the movie you realise the guy was the serial killer and you’d spend the next half of the film trying to run screaming from the house.

The emotional arrested development is hard to overlook. Yet in a world of ‘shock value’ and art with a political message, the innocence and magical naivety is a relief, a mark of complete difference.

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

And some of these pieces are incredibly moving. Toward the Blue Peninsula, c. 1953, was inspired by Emily Dickinson and is a bleached white interior of cages and walls with a single window that looks out across a bright blue sky.

Also Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943, part of Joseph’s Aviaries series, was completed during the Second World War and is a distressing scene of a bleeding parrot shot through the head, the glass front of this box shattered with a single bullet hole.

Whichever way you look at it, Joseph Cornell’s work is completely and utterly unique.  And the care that he took with each piece, his passion for creating these worlds within boxes, is so clearly evident.

And this is a well curated exhibition that has selected pieces from across Joseph’s career to demonstrate the development of his signature style. The Sackler Wing at the Royal Academy has hosted some fascinating and revealing displays on artists whose works are not as well known or as dramatic in size and emotional scale as the Rubens and the Kiefers that have filled the main galleries downstairs.

And, much like the Diebenkorn exhibition that went before, I hope this show brings Joseph Cornell’s work to a wider audience as his ability to transport the viewer into the worlds of his creation is quite special.

Royal Academy of Arts, London to September 27, 2015

Image Credits:

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

  1. 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 © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015
  2. Joseph Cornell, 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
  3. Joseph Cornell Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943 Mixed media, 39.4 x 28.3 x 10.8 cm Purchased with funds from the Coffin Fine Arts Trust; Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center, 1975.27. Photo Collection of the Des Moines Art Center © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015
  4. Joseph Cornell, Pharmacy, 1943 Box construction, 38.7 x 30.5 x 7.9 cm Collection of Paul Schärer Photo Dominique Uldry © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

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