JOSEPH CORNELL (1803-1972)
Born in New York during 1903, Cornell was a self taught artist who experimented with surrealist ideas, developing the concept of a box or diorama to display his work using all sorts of abandoned pieces of life’s objects. He created interesting poetic and sometimes rhetorical works of art. They often featured ballerinas, opera singers and film stars. He met European Surrealists and exhibited at a Dada exhibition. His close friends included Lee Miller the Photographer and Marcel Duchamp. Cornell was interested in the film world and even made short films himself, experimenting with editing to create unusual juxtapositions. He was interested in the beauty of the everyday, a slightly more positive take on surrealism than the likes of Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. He himself was a very private person who tended to isolate himself from society.
One of his pieces that refers to a well known ballerina of the past, is Taglioni’s Jewel Box. The compartments in the box have cubes of glass in the base with a simple necklace in the lid. At the base of the cube sections there is blue glass which when removed display a collection of sand, crystal and rhinestones resting on a mirrored surface. It is almost like looking through the sea to the gems below, though it may have meant to indicate the sky. Taglioni was a very chaste ballerina who was one of the first to dance on point, her father created her image dressing her in calf length tulle and net ballet dress which gave her a fragility and innocence which she exemplified in her dancing. I think Cornell is hinting at that fragility and perfection in his box, the cubes are like ice cubes, and refer to an incident which was supposed to have happened in 1835: "On a moonlight night in the winter of 1835 the carriage of Marie Taglioni was halted by a Russian highwayman, and that enchanting creature commanded to dance for this audience of one upon a panther’s skin spread over the snow beneath the stars. From this actuality arose the legend that to keep alive the memory of this adventure so precious to her, Taglioni formed the habit of placing a piece of artificial ice in her jewel casket or dressing table where, melting among the sparkling stones, there was evoked a hint of the atmosphere of the starlit heavens over the ice-covered landscape." This text appears on the lid of the box, which is very beautiful in concept and presentation.
Another of Cornell’s pieces is the Blue Owl Box (Untitled) which is a sculpture containing tree bark, sawdust, and glass with electric light bulb to illuminate the reproduction of an owl. It does not have the romantic imagery alluded to in the Taglioni 'sJewel Box but does represent nature’s own beauty which is captured by the light, possibly replicating moonlight where in that instant the owl is caught by it’s rays. The box is not as deep as some of his works but it realistically represents the owl, and the use of the light is innovative at the time. Much of Cornell’s work is more abstract than this which is why I wanted to include it as it shows the range and depth of Cornell’s creative ability, and his love of the natural world around him, which included astronomy as well as the natural sciences, often with hints of mythology and legend. In this case the owl hints at that fairy tale world.