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Photo Hickey-Robertson © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust

11 July 2015 Imogen Greenberg

The Royal Academy presents Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust, an exhibition of the work of a New York Artist who used found objects, collecting and archiving to create his trademark boxes, giving collage a place in contemporary art. London Calling headed down there, to see the first British show of his work in nearly 30 years.


The exhibition opens with Palace, like a fairytale world stuck still inside its frame, trees emerging from behind a frozen palace, the windows gleaming. The framing of it is perfectly symmetrical, and I’m reminded of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, showing how Cornell’s visions of imagined Europe, inspired by old Baedeker guide books, have permeated popular culture.

Cornell’s work is an eclectic mix of influences, that defy a specific time or location, and the overall feeling is that you’ve been drawn in to a parallel world dislocated from the real one. Using found objects and images from New York’s stores, his work drew on traditional ideas like the cabinet of curiosity as well as contemporary movements, with a surreal dream-like quality. Above all, Cornell’s work is seeped in the idea of travel, but he never really did, not further than the Subway from Queens to Manhattan. ‘Voyaging’ and escapism permeates his work, but specifics of time and place blur in to fantastical visions you cannot place, like the one that shapes Palace.

Cornell is best known for the ‘shadow box’, his personal medium. His boxes weren’t just large frames, but small worlds, expressing imagined places like childhood. He did express his surreal worlds in other mediums too and the exhibition is good at showcasing them. Object Fenetre is a concertina, expanding to show miniature, repeating doorways. The film Thimble Theatre shows Cornell applying his collage technique to moving images, splicing found footage to make a surreal short.

The exhibition divides in to four ideas about his work, inspired by his extensive diaries. The first section explores Play and Experimentation, permeated with childish dreams and stories. Cornell spoke of a ‘white magic’ in his work, an innocence compared to the ‘black magic’ of the Surrealism of Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. There is a frame of collaged engravings, of childish fairytale scenes dedicated to Ernst. He has been called America’s first home grown Surrealist, but though he engaged with the Surrealist movement, he expressed it in ways that were entirely his own.

This desire to explore innocence is part of the escapism that permeates the exhibition. But his methods involved obsessive collecting, so ordered for a man whose creativity sings. He catalogued all of the materials he found and collected them in to dossiers on each subject, before making anything from them. Where the allusions to travel seem to suggest a free spirit, the obsessive cataloguing feels controlling. This is best expressed in his Museum series. Here the adapted boxes are mini museums, with jars of specimens and objects on display to create order on his terms, despite the fact that the objects look like children’s collected trinkets. 

The darker side to the escapism is particularly pronounced in Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery. The Aviary series has been interpreted as a symbol of freedom, and Cornell’s interest in travel. In this box of beautiful birds, sat daintily on perches, their expressive character defying that they’re made of paper, the glass in front is cracked, like a bullet hole, with paint splatters marking the moment of destruction. Is this box Cornell’s response to the loss of life in World War Two, as if the real world had shattered the glass on his parallel world?

His series Celestial Navigation makes up the Observation and Exploration section of the exhibition. Cornell recorded weather and stargazed, watching the world around him, and then created boxes of maps, of the world and stars, and observatories. The earlier allusions to childhood fables seem whimsical in comparison to these boxes that feel more serious and even bleak.

The final section, Longing and Reverie, returns to the theme of travel, but also focuses on his obsessive nature. He was invited many times to travel to Europe but refused, sticking with his imagined version, thriving on the idea these places were unattainable, and trying desperately to capture those feelings of anticipation or nostalgia. On the one hand this feels evocative, but also obsessive, as he grappled to capture the essence of certain feelings, ideas or people.

Cornell brought high art together with popular culture and found objects, his work deceptively simple, prompting generations of school students to try and recreate his boxes (to little avail, as I can attest). But his status as a collector long preceded his status as an artist, and it is almost distressing in the extent of his sheer obsession. Suddenly his boxes can feel as much like explorative windows in to another world, as desperate attempts to control and order the world, both his internal one and the external one. Perhaps its because his best known work is often the sweetest and the most whimsical, which is unfair to Cornell. The exhibition is cleverly curated to showcase the breadth of his work. A powerful exhibition, I come out feeling his work is so much sadder, more obsessive and darker than I ever thought before, but nonetheless enthralling.

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust is at the Royal Academy until 27th September. For more information and to book tickets, please see their website.
 

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