Andromeda Hotel: The Art of Joseph Cornell

by Therese Lichtenstein




Cornell's appreciation of the material world of things is connected to a poetic, aesthetic, and spiritual sensibility. Like Proust's recollection of the taste of a madeleine, the sound of a piece of music, or a particular smell or color, Cornell's work engages the viewer in a reclaiming of the past. His favorite color was blue, and various shades of evening blue, like the blue of a twilight sky or the tinted blue snow at sunset, could transport him to another place and time.[24] Consider the memory of the way sunlight falls on a particular day. Weather and light can function like the madeleine or like architecture, enveloping one in the space and atmosphere of a memory, returning one to a specific location and moment. Cornell's associative nonlinear thinking is often apparent in his diary entries. On July 15, l946, for example, he wrote, "Sprig of growing mint plucked its pungency bringing back. Adirondacks with the usual magical experience and unexpected vividness. Smell of gasoline brings back days of childhood father's boat."[25] Critic Adam Gopnick commented on Cornell's nostalgia:

There is, he saw, a kind of nostalgia that posits a world that never existed and a set of virtues never put into practice -- the kind that idealizes the heroic forties, or the roaring twenties, or the fabulous fifties -- and a kind that finds a bottomless melancholy in the simple desolation of life by time. The false kind of nostalgia promotes the superiority of life past; the true kind captures the sadness of life passing.[26]

The fear of forgetting provokes the construction of public and private memorials. Similar to habitats or dioramas in the Museum of Natural History, Cornell's boxes suggest specimens or forgotten histories meant to be preserved. They often look old, carefully protected, and revered. Assembling objects and reproductions to form new artifacts, Cornell commemorates an already fading past. Like so many nineteenth-century snow globes, his boxes create the momentary illusion that time can be stopped and contained. [27]

Cornell called the eternal in the now the "eterniday," by which he meant a union of the timeless and the daily. [28] Cultural and personal memories become a past present in an array of images. His alternative visionary worlds look like they exist for the first time, forever. Like shooting stars they capture the fleeting illumination in a transitory memory. Although time is momentarily frozen in a memory trace, the viewer sees the effects of time. Cornell's art is one of paradox. It is a mixture of spirituality, exploration, chance and play, the passage of time, the celestial and natural sciences, and the cultural world of theatre, music, ballet, movies, and literature. Like visual haikus, full of private daydreams and obsessions, his boxes and collages express yearning, hope, disappointment, vulnerability, sadness, melancholy, and joy.

Historian, collector, and artist, Cornell idealized the past into mythic places of the imagination. He influenced generations of artists with his lyrical and at times subtly disturbing art. His works are elegiac and sublime. They represent various psychological states of desire, loss, and mourning that are especially meaningful in our shifting and unsettled world, which is obsessed with memory. Today's focus on memory underscores our interest in Cornell.[29] As our culture looks nostalgically back to earlier eras, the past becomes less traumatic with the passing of time; and the present becomes less traumatic when it turns into the past. Cornell's romanticized visions join together objects from nature and culture, from the past and the present, in order to "transcend...the dust heap & ruthlessness of time."[31] In the words of T. S. Eliot, a poet whom Cornell admired:

Time present and Time past
Are both perhaps in time future,
And Time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. [32]


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