Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination

Though he was a visual artist, Joseph Cornell seemed more like a literary recluse, a soulmate of Emily Dickinson. Cornell was bird-like in stature, dreamy in temperament and monkish when it came to the artistic fame he found in later years. Between 1903-1972, he spent most of his days in a small home on the aptly named Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York. He lived with his mother and took care of his younger brother, Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy. By day, he was an unlikely door-to-door salesman and barely made ends meet; by night, he was an artist of unusual lyrical power.

He made collages from pulpy ephemera such as starlet photographs and astronomical maps. Cornell often juxtaposed such imagery with precious, discarded objects like clay soap-bubble pipes and jars of sparkling pigments. He liked to create his compositions in jewel cases or wood boxes, giving his collages a sculptural feel. For Cornell, these boxes held “eterniday," meaning the past is ever unfolding into the present. Linear time disappears in favor of a poetic meditation upon the object, and within it, a curious juxtaposition of imagery.

I recently attended Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, a chronological retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which originated at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The show covered his well-known work in collages and boxes (it closes January 6th). Amid teeming works, one piece exemplifies Cornell’s poetic nature—a jewel case holding fake ice cubes, dedicated to the 19th-century ballerina Marie Taglioni. Cornell was extremely well-read and fluent in all things French; he especially appreciated the ballet. Taglioni supposedly kept a fake ice cube in her jewel case, a memento of a time when she twirled in the snow to bemuse a Russian highwayman who had halted her carriage on a starlit night.

Like Rembrandt, Cornell coaxed a more subtle richness from his materials in later years. The original pieces glow with a spiritual light, which can’t be reproduced in photographs. “Medici Princess" (ca. 1952) comes from Cornell’s “Medici" series, dedicated to the ruling family of Renaissance Florence and its more poignant figures. The box features a reproduction of a portrait by the court painter Agnolo Bronzino. In it Bia de’Medici, an illegitimate child of Duke Cosimo I, gazes toward the viewer with eerie prescience and preciousness. Around her neck, she wears a tiny medallion bearing the picture of her powerful father. Cornell seems to evoke the transcendent power of art and memory here. Bia would live only to the age of five, but Cornell has nested her enamel-like image in a dark wood box, behind a glass pane, blurred and deep blue—Cornell’s favorite color. Her image is repeated in smaller vignettes at either side, also encased in glass. Below her, one can see a feather, bound book pages and a floor-plan of the Florentine palace, where once she played ever so briefly, so long ago.

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