Cornell Constructions Unveil Utopia

LONDON -- The Royal Academy presents 'Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust', a survey of the artist's complex and eclectic oeuvre exploring 80 of Cornell's intricate box constructions, assemblages, collages and films.

The re-appraisal of the artist's work comes some 35 years after the last major solo exhibition of Cornell in Europe, which originated at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1980, and then traveled to the Whitechapel Gallery in the UK.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network now pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire a typical Joseph Cornell box.

Cornell (1903 --1972) called his vitrines 'poetical theaters' -- which highlighted the conceptuality of materials, the poetry and the perceived child-like strangeness of the world.

The artist's works could be seen as assemblages of material from places that he would never visit.

Except for the three and a half years that Cornell spent as a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, he lived for most of his life in a small, wooden-frame house on Utopia Parkway in a working-class area of Flushing, New York, along with his mother and his brother Robert, whose cerebral palsy prevented the artist from traveling.

Limited Environment

Cornell's immediate environment may have been physically limiting, but his fascinations drew on his desires and we soon had creations such as Cornell's 'Soap Bubble Set', the 'Celestial Navigation Series' and the artist's particularly telling 'Hotel' series', as shown here.

In the 'Hotel series', Cornell collected old advertisements for European hotels evoking the romance of travel that he so longed for, then expanded the idea to the topography of the universe -- referencing Andromeda and the mythologies surrounding the constellations -- in this instance relating them back to the sea where sailors would use the heavens as a navigational aid.

The artist built emotional equations from physical assemblages; subjective homages to his interests and desires, overflowing with his fascinations.

Cornell also appropriated practices as well as objects, taking the art of collage pioneered by European modernists and giving it his trademark romantic and innocent perspective. Although he falls in love with ballerinas, there is never any hint of sexuality in his work.

Cornell's fascination with 'Natural Philosophy' a term garnered from the period, conjuring an era lacking any distinction between artist and scientist.

The artist built his vitrines out of the need to explore the universal enigma; echoing the spirals of divine order. The viewer bumps into the Fibonacci sequence, the golden spiral leads us away from the artist's toys towards the gentle insinuation of a deeper desire to merge the mathematical order of the universe with the divine and with poetry. The true thinking of a renaissance artist.

Cornell's glass-fronted shadow boxes were indeed toys -- games of study for the artist at play in the world -- leading to Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages of everyday items, and Damien Hirst's medicine cabinets.

'Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust' - The Royal Academy Of Arts - until 27 September 2015

Today's homepage Featured Art Video offers an overview of the intricate boxes of Joseph Cornell.