Untitled (Pinturicchio Boy), 1942-52 [Left] Untitled (Medici Princess), c. 1948 [Right]
I cannot remember the last time I visited a retrospective exhibition for one artist where every art work on display, from their very early work, mature and usually most iconic work and later, end of career work, was so completely resolved, sophisticated and enchanting as that of Joseph Cornell in this exhibition at the Royal Academy, his first retrospective in the UK for over thirty years.
Cornell (1903-1972) was an extraordinary artist. Completely self-taught and despite having never travelled outside his native USA, he created the most exquisite and sublime art works where notions of travel was the predominate influence. He was extremely well-read and knowledgeable on a diverse range of subjects such as literature, astronomy, natural history and opera, all which fed into his collages and assemblages. Although he never visited Europe, Cornell was captivated by bygone imagery and through his collecting (his box constructions were filled with objects he found in thrift shops in his native New York, which he used to wander around during his lunch breaks as a textile salesman), he amassed an exceptional knowledge of astronomical charts and geographical maps, Italian and Spanish Old Master paintings, historical ballet, early cinema, literature, poetry and ornithology. There was seemingly no subject which he could not understand, interpret and extract not only selective imagery but also an alternative context in order to construct a fantasy creation and not once did any of his “shadow boxes” as he called them, ever slip into naivety, lazy construction or theatre-set appearances.
Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces), 1949
Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945
Cornell was a fascinating character. He lived with and took care of his mother and younger brother, who suffered from cerebral palsy, for all their lives. Although reserved in character and often portrayed as an isolated outsider, through personal friendships and a series of successful exhibitions and patronage by the likes of Peggy Guggenheim and Alfred Barr, he connected with leading members within Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism as the movements developed in New York in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Despite these relationships, Cornell maintained his independence from any particular group in order to champion a highly personal form of artistic expression.
Play and experimentation, collecting and classification, longing and reverie – categorisations the Royal Academy have used to describe Cornell’s shifting attention and creations of fantastical games, fictional valises and shrines to places and people. He did not need to travel as his seemingly limitless imagination and creative skills could construct fantastical renders which reality would be hard pressed to compare with.
Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1956-58
Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), 1936
Untitled (The Life of Ludwig II of Bavaria), 1941-52
Untitled (Minutiae Objects), c. 1930s
L'Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode, 1940