Andromeda Hotel: The Art of Joseph Cornell

by Therese Lichtenstein




For Cornell, the work of art is a revelation produced from the spiritual engagement with the everyday. Cornell used the term "métaphysique d'ephemera" to refer to the magic in the commonplace. According to Mary Ann Caws:

The metaphysique d'ephemera (sic)...betokens the passion he devoted to the wandering portion of his days, tracking down the trivial elements in his boxes which he saw as linked to a greater philosophical system. He took the term from the nineteenth-century French Romantic poet and novelist Gerard de Nerval, who wanted to indicate the supreme importance of the smallest things once the imagination transforms them.[8]

Cornell's objects carefully turn the ephemeral into enduring icons that illuminate the wonder and poetics of the everyday. Yet these mysterious worlds often appear on the verge of disappearing. Like the Surrealists before him, Cornell was intrigued by the retrieval of the outmoded. He created quiet, evocative memorials that exist between the ephemeral and the permanent in a poetics of desire. Remnants of a culture are saved before they are forgotten. The past is alive in the present. His theatrical "shadow boxes" are reminiscent of nineteenth-century Victorian "toy theatres" and cabinets of curiosities.[9]

In addition to revealing the magical in the commonplace, Cornell's art explores the process of play, aesthetic pleasure, and the return to childhood, where private fantasies merge with collective cultural artifacts. Childhood is worshipped by the Christian Scientists, who see it as a state of grace. Cornell seems to acknowledge the importance of childhood when he "explains in a note dated November 9, l942, his own 'realization that the entire personal history of a man lies latent in his childhood.'"[10] His work creates a powerful nostalgia in its longing for a lost innocence. He had an insatiable curiosity and wanted to recapture the youthful delight in the discovery of the beauty in the sensual world. His tender, lyrical representation of fugitive impressions reveals a treasured preservation, similar to a child's prized collection of charms.

Many of his boxes resemble small-scale toys (pl. 00). Chance played an important role in the small horizontal game boxes that Cornell made in the l930s, containing assorted objects that shift and change position when the boxes are moved. In Object (1944), for example, a spring, stars, butterflies, tiny silver balls, and blue sand are placed together on a reproduction of an urban building facade. Like windswept sands on an ocean beach these elements transform into impermanent configurations, playfully pointing out the temporality of all things.

One of the ways to control and connect with the place in which one lives is to absorb the things in one's environment and turn them into art. It is also a way of making sense of the world and giving it meaning. Like children playing with dolls, Cornell manipulates objects in his environment to create a fantasy/real world. His process of making art is a form of daydreaming and play. Freud relates adult poetic activity to child's play. The child and the poet create subjective worlds of their own. In his essay "The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming," Freud claims, "Every child at play behaves like an imaginative writer, in that he creates a world of his own or, more truly, he rearranges the things of his world and orders it in a new way that pleases him better."[11] Children borrow things from and link their play to the real world, perhaps with the desire to control it. For Freud, the play of children is determined by their wish to be grown up. [12] As people mature they stop playing. But, Freud argues, it is difficult to give up pleasures once experienced. He believes that they are rarely relinquished but rather substituted for something else. Instead of playing one begins to create fantasy.[13] The artist does the same thing -- he creates a world of fantasy -- but separates it sharply from reality. "[He] softens the egotistical character of the daydream by changes and disguises, and he bribes us by the offer of a purely formal -- that is, aesthetic --pleasure in the presentation of his fantasies. The increment of pleasure which is offered us in order to release yet greater pleasureis called...'fore-pleasure.'"[14] He puts "us into a position in which we can enjoy our own daydreams without reproach or shame."[15]

From 1929 until his death in 1972, Cornell resided at 3708 Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York, where he cared for both his mother and invalid brother, Robert; he rarely traveled beyond the New York City area. His interest in high art and popular culture -- opera, film, poetry, movie stars, Christian Science, natural science, astronomy, cinema, games, and distant places and times -- led to a collection of objects that he carefully archived in his basement workshop. A mid-twentieth-century American flaneur,[16] Cornell regularly made trips into Manhattan where he purchased old maps, stamps, photographs, prints, magazines, postcards, books and nineteenth-century travelers' guides. He frequented flea markets, bookstalls on Fourth Avenue, Brentano's, F.A.O. Schwartz, thrift shops, and antique stores. He often went to Woolworth's and Grant's Five and Dime in Flushing, Queens, to buy necklaces and cordial glasses to use in his box constructions. He would occasionally visit his sister, Betty in Westhampton, where he collected seashells, driftwood, starfish, and sand from the beach.[17] His treasures could be found all over his home. Like an alchemist, Cornell, the obsessive collector, turned the artifacts into something precious. The transparent glass that covers many of his shadow boxes at once forms a barrier to the viewer's reach at the same time that it summons the viewer to look in, like a passerby in front of a shop window.[18]

Cornell, who never traveled to Europe, often referred to himself as an "armchair voyager" to past times and various places. [19] In the meditatively silent Grand Hotel-Hotel Taglioni (pl. 00), for example, he mixes his fascination with old hotels and his love of the ballet. The title is a reference to Marie Taglioni, the famous nineteenth-century Romantic ballerina, whom Cornell adored and admired.[20] (The nineteenth-century Villa Taglioni, where Marie lived in Northern Italy, still exists today.) The bold typeface "Grand Hotel" is placed across the top of the box. Below it, a decal of a cat's head overlaps a packaging label from a Viennese bakery in Brussels. The words "Taglioni Hotel" appear in smaller typeface beneath the label. A Czech stamp with the image of a rabbit is pasted beneath this hotel label. The white box is minimal and filled with splintered cracks and a couple of thin horizontal and vertical "architectural" members. An empty perch creates a sense of absence, nostalgic longing, sadness, and loss. The free association of image and text, like the structure of a dream, inspires the viewer to actively participate, at times like a detective, in search of meaning. He too, becomes an "armchair voyager," bringing his own desires, associations, and meanings to the work.


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