Joseph Cornell's alluring boxes

A lavish tribute to the modern artist on the 100th anniversary of his birth

"Cornell could take you into the universe in the space of a thimble," writes Robert Lehrman, a prominent collector of this mid-20th-century American artist's small-scale but visionary work.

Like Lehrman, all the contributors to this celebration of Joseph Cornell attempt to describe the ineffable feeling of contemplating his "shadow boxes" or "poetic theaters." Cornell himself, we are told, rarely committed explanations of his art to paper. Perhaps in consequence, there has not been a shortage of analyzers and admirers since his death in 1972 eager to put pen to paper on his behalf.

The sense Lehrman conveys of Cornell's art is informed by actually holding and moving the works - a privilege denied most of us, who can see but not touch Cornell's boxes in museum displays - or in beautiful photographic reproductions like these. However, the book, published in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, also includes a DVD that shows some of the works "in action," along with audio interviews with art critics, and photos of additional material that inspired his work.

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan tells us that Cornell called his studio a "laboratory" and his boxed displays "museums" and "pharmacies." They have something in common with the old "cabinets of curiosities" in which traveling collectors would, centuries ago, store and show strange or exotic items. But Cornell's collecting was driven by an affection for comparatively commonplace natural history, reproductions of Renaissance paintings, female film stars and ballet dancers, children and childhood. His works bring together repetitive celluloid images, maps (he aptly called himself "an armchair voyager"), charts of the stars, sand, marbles, shells, bubble pipes - a whole miscellany of objects and interests that were not specially rare, but, in his highly individual poetry of juxtaposition and unexpected association, achieved a rarity of vision.

Walter Hopps describes Cornell as a "visual alchemist," and his work does have something in common with such ancient and magical mysteries.

On another level, this artist was an unabashed nostalgist, as shown in his love of such boyhood obsessions as penny arcades and pinball machines. He was unafraid of sentimentality (he loved Victoriana), and many of his works might well be seen as souvenirs. He called his tributes to Romantic Ballet "bouquets." His boxes display private (and notably guileless) obsessions rather than an expressive extroversion. If he is a surrealist - dreams were very significant to him - he is a supremely innocent and undisturbed one.

One essay in this book, by Richard Vine, gives serious attention to an aspect of Cornell that is usually mentioned only in passing, as if it's an inexplicable or slightly embarrassing aberration in a modern artist so admired by his peers. Hopps believes Cornell was "one of the true pioneers at mid-century" art, and it discomforts some to know that he was also a committed, lifelong Christian Scientist.

Vine tries to take a balanced view of this fact, which is plain to see in frequent references in Cornell's diary. Vine points out that it can hardly be ignored, since the teachings of Christian Science and membership of the Christian Science church "provided Cornell ... with a clarity essential to his sanity and his art - the certainty, despite everyday trials and confusions, of ultimate cosmic harmony within the all-encompassing Mind of God."

What Vine does not claim, however, is that Christian Science was the mainspring of Cornell's art, and this seems fair. Christian Science is never overt in his work. As Vine indicates, Cornell had a more than distinct urge to compartmentalize things. This is obvious in his love of boxing his art, but it is also true of different aspects of his life, his friendships, his private and public personas.

Vine is to be congratulated for the unusual seriousness with which he touches on this issue. He sometimes misunderstands quotes lifted out of context from Mary Baker Eddy's textbook of Christian Science, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," which was central to Cornell's study of this religion, but he sees Mrs. Eddy's thinking as "steeped in traditional Christian teachings ... [continuing] a line of metaphysical thinking that extends back at least twenty-five centuries."

Against the background of Christianity's emphasis on eternality, Vine sees Cornell's art as "poignant" in its "emblems of transitoriness and travel - the birds, maidens, sky maps, rolling pinballs...." But he adds that "in their boxed confinement," these emblems "communicate a sense of abiding, of a world forever moving and changing, yet forever fundamentally unchanged."

One can imagine Cornell being well pleased with such understanding commentary.

Christopher Andreae writes about the arts from Glasgow, Scotland.

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