23 December 2016

"I love this. You will love this." A Joseph Cornell Christmas Card

"We all live in his enchanted forest." - John Ashbery, American poet, writing about Joseph Cornell. 

An unidentified person wrote "I love this.  You will love this." in the margin of a poster showing a Joseph Cornell shadow box.  A brilliant artist who created most of his work as gifts for friends or simply as offerings to people he admired, Joseph Cornell was the embodiment of that sentiment.

Joseph Cornell was born on Christmas Eve in 1903.  Although Cornell led a humdrum, even constrained life, and rarely traveled, he was fortunate to live in New York City, a place where ordinary life offers intimations of magic around any corner.    He described the small objects he collected and used to compose his shadow boxes as "exquisite surprises."   These jewel-like boxes are now treasures to the museums lucky enough to have them and once you have seen one  you will seek them out wherever you go. 

The shadow box itself has theatrical ancestors, from the wunderkammer (chamber of wonders) of  Renaissance courts and street fairs to the penny arcades that Cornell himself saw at amusement parks as a child.  In Cornell's imagination the idea of a miniature world as entertainment is deepened by memories and personal associations that mesmerize viewers.   So many of his boxes contain pictures of birds that critics have liked to speculate on their symbolism: caged bird of free spirit?  The caged bird appeals to those who concentrate on the artist's loneliness and  shyness with women but Cornell's birds seem to me closer in spirit to the poet Shelley's skylark, who can teach him "half the gladness" it knows.

Some have wanted to claim Cornell's art for surrealism but the artist said not, and I am inclined to agree.  The Surrealist impulse to mix up dreams and reality was often aimed at unnerving the viewer with a pile-up of illogical elements; Cornell was a romantic, bent on revealing magic in our surroundings.  White magic, he said. 

To read more:
1. A Convergence of Birds: Fiction and poetry Inspired by the works of Joseph Cornell, various authors, New York, Distributed Art Publishers: 2009.

1. Joseph Cornell - A Christmas Card Project, 1953, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
2. Jospeh Cornell - untitled shadow box, title attributed Hotel de la Duchesse Anne, 1957, Art Institute of Chicago.


Hels said...

"Cornell was a romantic, bent on revealing (white) magic in our surroundings". Not all artists were romantic, of course, but lots of artists used their skills to create or display the magic of life. And how much more so in places like New York where the glittering ice and whirling snow make the viewer suspend belief for a while. This wouldn't have been possible, for example, had Cornell been sweltering hot on an Australian, New Zealand or South African beach over Christmas.

Have a happy healthy holiday :)

Jane said...

Hels, Cornell was fascinated by colorful tropical birds, too, especially parrots. Happy new Year to you.

Tania said...

Nice Christmas card, thanks, Jane & best wishes for the new year.
Peace and love.

Jane said...

Bonne chance pour une bonne annee, Tania!