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Joseph Cornell: Surrealism’s Man in a Box

Writing by Emily Hughes. Illustration by Iz Gius.

If eclectic and shabby-chic were to be epitomised by the works of one singular artist, the surreal and scrambled-together style of Joseph Cornell would certainly not be far off the mark. Best known for his collages and shadow-boxes, his artwork consists primarily of found objects from the book shops and thrift shops of New York, having been transfixed by ornately beautiful and pre-loved objects.

The artist’s isolation stemmed from an overbearing mother and a duty of care for his disabled younger brother, Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy and to whom Joseph Cornell devoted much of his life. The majority of Cornell’s artwork was created in the basement of his mother’s small wooden house in a working-class, residential area of Flushing, New York. Artists who Cornell knew, in contrast, such as Dalí and Warhol, became famous and set up studios in and amongst the busy sprawl of the city. Thus, it was in relative physical isolation from the roaring mid-twentieth-century art scene of Manhattan that Cornell spent most of his career.

Indeed, perhaps Cornell’s being so distant from the buzzing New York art scene is part of what renders his artwork so romantically lyrical, depicting an autobiographical confinement as opposed to grandiose scenes of the urban world. A self-taught artist, his work is composed of ornate, everyday objects which render evocative the mundane and colour his own seclusion into a sentimentally vivid scene. A shy figure, his reclusive nature saw him struggling to enter into romantic relationships throughout his life, and at times, saw him crippled with loneliness.

That is not to say that Joseph Cornell was friendless; rather, he jostled among many of the great artists of his time, garnering fame and friendships in the company of Warhol, Rothko and Duchamp, to name a few. His mild manner and reclusive nature was no obstacle in the selling and distribution of his artwork, having been represented by a multitude of galleries including the Julien Levy Gallery, Manhattan, in 1932, and the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. Both of these exhibitions, among others, saw him featured alongside high-profile surrealists such as Dalí and Duchamp. However, despite the successful distribution of his artwork, his shy nature and the deeply personal quality of his art led to his persistent unease with the business side of being an artist, preferring simply to give pieces of art away instead of working with a single gallery and giving them excessive control over his work.

He longed to travel and was especially enthralled by France, but he never left the USA. He longed for romance and passion, yet his romantic gestures towards women were often either misunderstood or, if successful, undone by his jealous mother’s interference. Among the women who were gifted with his artworks as a romantic gesture was Audrey Hepburn. However, his gift of an ‘owl box’ artwork which he mailed to her in 1954 was interpreted as ‘voodoo-like’ and promptly mailed back to his home. Among his most enduring fixations, the Japanese avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama was subject to his attention for a period in 1962, but a combination of Cornell’s mother’s plans to quash the relationship and Cornell’s abundant demands on her attention made her eventually withdraw from the relationship.

Having always been a profoundly solitary figure, his final years after the death of his mother and his brother saw him consumed by loneliness, in the house which he had always lived. These years especially saw him lacking the physical intimacy that he’d craved. In the last conversation he had with his sister, he admitted that ‘I wish I hadn’t been so reserved’, reflecting upon his hermit-like existence. He built infinite realms of mystical scenes in the form of his artwork, all from the single, confined space of his mother’s basement, as opposed to exploring the horizons of the world that surrounded him.

The ornate antiquity of Cornell’s shadow-box artwork sets it apart from the traditional medium of oil paint on canvas, although perhaps the most evocative feature of his artwork is its metaphor for the artist’s own life. It is a style of art that longs to be handled and interacted with, yet remains separated from the world by a pane of glass. Joseph Cornell built exquisite images from the realm of his imagination, yet ironically his isolated circumstances saw him depending upon this imagination for emotional fulfilment and a sense of romantic affiliation with the world that had fascinated him.

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