“What kind of man is this who from old brown cardboard photographs, collected in second hand bookstores, has reconstructed the 19th century grand tour of Europe for his mind’s eye more vividly than those who took it?” (Robert Motherwell, 1953)
Imagine not leaving your home in New York, save for a few trips to work and to collect items from junk shops, and yet having an encyclopaedic knowledge of Europe and its wonderful landscapes far, far away.
In order to be truly captivated by Joseph Cornell, whose exhibition ‘Wanderlust’ is currently on show at the Royal Academy of Arts, one needs to remember that he never once ventured outside of the US. Yet, through his imagination alone, he succeeded in vividly capturing the pure essence of characters, cities and constellations using the art of collage and craft as he experimented with his shadow boxes.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of Cornell’s vivid and unrelenting creativity is ‘Untitled (The Crystal Cage: Portrait of Berenice)’, an old valise which is seen open on display. The valise belongs to the fictional character of Berenice, a scientific explorer and astronomer who fell in love with the Pagode de Chanteloup, a French tower in the Loire. Cornell imagined that Berenice’s parents had transported the Pagode to New England for her to observe and study the skies. He continued working on her dossier, collecting clippings Berenice would be interested in, from 1934-1967.
The exhibition is beautifully curated and divided into four sections: Play & Experiment, Collecting & Classification, Observation & Exploration and Longing & Reverie. The divisions are not clear cut, allowing visitors to freely fall into Cornell’s own Wonderland.
Once visitors are within this Wonderland, contained in mere wooden boxes, they are introduced to Cornell’s own natural history, his fictional expeditions around the world and his celestial hotels. The “white magic” he expressed a desire to perform casts a spell and transports audiences into the alternate dimension Cornell lived in.
The RA, in conjunction with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, has successfully introduced Cornell to a new generation in Europe, the continent he so admired, allowing him to travel across the ocean and into our minds.
4 July – 27 September, Royal Academy of Arts (The Sackler Wing)
Standard price £11.50 Concessions £8