Joseph Cornell

It’s hard to know where to begin, reviewing this Joseph Cornell exhibition. There are so many themes, ideas, and fascinating paradoxes running through his work. Cornell’s objects and assemblages – recalling sixteenth-century Wunderkammer (Cabinets of Curiosity) – are endlessly surprising, curious and intriguing.

Initially there’s that flea market feeling; what you experience among antiques and bric-a-brac, the gazing over ephemera. But soon you start to glimpse the depth and grasp of Cornell’s art.

In Cornell’s world we traverse eras, from ancient Egypt to Renaissance Italy to New York City in the 20th century. We see moonscapes and spectral nights. We marvel over exotic birds and ballerinas. We are captivated by the imagination, and the imagination is captured, and framed, in cases and cabinets.

Cornell is the archetype of an urban solitary, a flaneur of the 20th century. Despite his poor upbringing, living most of his life with his mother and disabled brother in a clapboard house in Flushing, Queens, he was able to satisfy his immense curiosity by visiting the public library, museums, bookstores and junk shops – places that could be visited by anyone. In these places he escaped. Then later he would return, to the kitchen of his house, to ply together his poetic fantasies, his visions of wonder.

And what visions they are. Early on in the exhibition we get a measure of Cornell’s early surrealist aesthetic, his perfectionism, and the attention to minutae. In Soap Bubble Set (1941), we see a box with a black background. There is a pipe, with wooden stem and ceramic white chamber blowing “bubbles” – a cluster of glass discs – within which are x-ray images of white shells. It is intricate, startling and suggestive, evoking transience; momentary and deep time framed together.

JC PharmacyLater we see Pharmacy (1943), a glass cabinet that resembles other works from the exhibition in sharing the same grid form. Cornell’s piece was referenced by Damien Hirst in his enormous Pharmacy installation produced fifty years later. Hirst used his piece to question belief in science over art. But whereas Hirst’s installation is clinical, presenting lots of clean shelves of medicine packets, Cornell’s little case contains misty glass bottles, which enclose crêpe and tissue cuttings, translucent crystals, a paper butterfly wing, golden paint, copper and sulphate. Unlike Hirst’s piece, which speaks blandly to a single abstract idea, there’s an intrinsic appeal, a tangible and personal quality to Cornell’s work.

Cornell reveled in the idea of discovery and travel. Works contain old 19th century maps and cut up pages of Baedeker, the Victorians’ guide book of choice. Cornell stunned Marcel Duchamp with his knowledge of Paris’ streets, despite never having visited the city. His box Naples (1942) uses a sepia photograph of a Neapolitan street as its backdrop with a local wine glass, shell and tag labeled ‘Naples’ dangling suggestively within the glass.

Cornell’s Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery (1943) reveals the artist’s passion for parrots.JC Shooting Gallery There’s a taxonomic aspect to
this box, as the colourful birds are numbered.  Yet the birds and the bare backdrop are splodged with paint drops. These were designed to represent bullets and blood. Deeply troubled by the war, the piece suggests how our Enlightenment ideals of discovery and learning were messed up by the idiocy of war.

JC Towards BlueTowards the end of the show we see his memorial box for Emily Dickinson, Toward the Blue Peninsula (1953). It was inspired by the Amhurst bedroom where the American wrote her poetry. Cornell’s box is all white, partly caged, with a window looking onto a blue sky. It’s a sympathetic metaphor for Dickinson’s life. Both Dickinson and Cornell were introverted artists who travelled little. Both, however, were fervent believers in the world outside.

One of the last pieces that struck me was Hölderlin Object (1944-46) in which a small wooden box encases a book set beneath a sheet of blue glass. The book is wrapped in what appears as cobalt blue velvet, tied up with a lighter blue string. Embedded in the box’s lid is a large blue oak leaf, a traditional symbol of power, majesty and the German nation. It is a symbolic homage to the great German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. The blue glass brings a mysterious otherworldly quality to the work, a sense of what Hölderlin would have called Sehnsucht, or longing.

Throughout Cornell’s work we sense nostalgia, “the light of other days”, as he called it. As the world war raged and a standardizing Fordism exploded across America, Cornell yearned for elsewhere – for the dancer Tamara Toumanova, for the grace of historical figures, for flights unto the stars, for moonlit nights. His art was escapist, child-like, humble. Out of the great tragedies of the last century, he created a world that saw wondrous beauty in small things, and for that he was essentially optimistic.

The Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy, “Wanderlust”, ran from 4 July – 27 September 2015.

Advertisements

Baroque in Rome

Review of the exhibition at the Palazzo Cipolla

As someone who has lived in Rome on and off over the past seven years, I found this exhibition on the Baroque in Rome particularly enjoyable. It helped me gain a greater understanding of this city whose history is so woven into the surfaces of its streets and squares, the facades of its buildings and their interiors.

The sculpture, paintings and architecture of the 17th century form some of Rome’s most characteristic sights. The Piazza Navona, for example, was transformed during this time. The Palazzo Pamphilj, the Church of Sant’Agnese and the Fountain of the Four Rivers, comprising the piazza’s most dramatic architecture, were all either completely re-designed or constructed at the height of the Baroque period. All are found within the same photo taken by millions of tourists each year.

My reference to photography is deliberate. These tourists are unwittingly perpetuating a practice that was heavily pursued through works of Reni, da Cortona, Rubens and Bernini: the dramatic potential of capturing the moment. This was one of the key ideas of the Baroque movement.

File:Guido Reni - Atalanta and Hippomenes - WGA19271.jpg

The drama of the moment is paramount throughout the exhibition at the Palazzo Cipolla. In the first room we stand before energetic scenes such as Guido Reni’s Atlanta and Hippomenes, floundering mid-race, yet frozen in time. Reni depicts the image with extraordinary grace: the protagonists’ skin and shadows are softly rendered yet prominent against the dark backdrop. Through the angles of their limbs, the artist cleverly carries the viewer’s eye in an arc across the canvas.

But above all we see biblical stories reflected dramatically through the Baroque art on display. Da Cortona’s Angels Scaling the Foreheads of the Children of Israel, for example, is viewed from the surface of the sea, at night, a confused sight of angels flying above the boats that contain the children of Israel, marking crosses upon the desperate passengers’ foreheads. The painting represents a vision of the Apocalypse, with the division of risen souls on the Day of Judgment. The chaotic scene is illuminated by a glowing crucifix held aloft by an angel.

Another sensational moment is captured by the Bolognese sculptor Alessandro Algardi with his bronze statuette, Saint Michael Overcoming the Devil. Saint Michael, sporting feathered wings, stands over the Devil. His right arm is raised. His left holds a chain fixed to a manacle that clasps the arm of the devil that is in flames beneath, writhing, mouth and eyes open, frantic.

Baroque artists were encouraged to captivate their audiences. They were expected to capture all the drama of the Christian narrative in order to draw crowds into the churches that fell under the papal domain. Politics demanded it. Luther’s damning theological critique of Catholicism provoked the Council of Trent, which led to the Counter Reformation. Consequently, art had to persuade: it invoked drama, magnificence and the intense spiritual expression of Caravaggio.

Together, this movement created what the art historian Robert Hughes has described as “the last great universal language of spirituality”. This language can be clearly understood at the Palazzo Cipolla exhibition.

Catholic Herald