Progression of Art
Tilly-Losch is one of Cornell's many signature shadow boxes: glass-fronted boxes filled with found items carefully arranged in small-scale tableaux. With its dream-like imagery and subject matter that revolves around childhood memory, Tilly-Losch addresses themes that would recur throughout Cornell's oeuvre. It features a cut-out image of a girl suspended by strings against a sky-blue background, hovering above an image of a mountain range as she holds a wooden bead on a string. The piece takes its name from the Viennese actress and dancer Tilly Losch, who lived and worked in the United States, appearing in several Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. As such, it evokes Cornell's interest in filmmaking and movie stars, both of which would figure largely in his work, while the piece's stage-like setting is a nod to Cornell's love of theater.
Wood, glass, paper, box construction - The Robert Lehman Art Trust, Washington, D.C.
Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)
Made for the 1936 Museum of Modern Art exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism, this work was the first of Cornell's shadow boxes, containing many of the characteristic features of his signature art form. In these works, Cornell used the Surrealist practice of juxtaposing unrelated found objects, in this case, a doll's head, a clay pipe used to make soap bubbles, a bird's egg, a glass, an antique map of the moon, and a print of the leaning tower at Pisa. Some writers have interpreted the piece as a family portrait, with the doll's head "depicting" the artist, the egg symbolizing his mother, the pipe his father, and the four blocks at the top as Cornell and his three siblings. The box was one of numerous works titled Soap Bubble Set, a theme linked by their creator not only with childhood but also with the cosmos.
Wood, glass, plastic, paper, box construction - Wadsworth Atheneum Museum, Hartford
Taglioni's Jewel Casket
In addition to shadow boxes, Cornell created other box works as well, including this piece. Taglioni's Jewel Casket notably lacks the protective glass covering of the shadow boxes and resembles a real jewelry box, with its velvet lining and open lid (from which hangs a rhinestone necklace purchased at a New York Woolworth's dime store) the box seems to beckon to the viewer not only to gaze at but also handle the objects within.
This work, one of dozens of boxes the artist created referencing specific 19th-century ballerinas, reflects Cornell's practice of working in series—appropriate to an artist who liked to collect and categorize. It also reflects Cornell's love of ballet. Among his favorite ballerinas was the acclaimed Italian dancer Marie Taglioni, who according to legend, kept an imitation ice cube in her jewelry box to commemorate dancing in the snow at the behest of a Russian highwayman. The legend is printed on the inside cover of Taglioni's Jewel Casket and referenced in the rows of glass cubes, suggestive of both ice and precious jewels.
Wood box, velvet, glass cubes, glass necklace - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Untitled (Medici Boy)
In addition to combing disparate objects, Cornell sometimes also juxtaposed far-flung eras and locales. The early-15th century and the 20th century come together in Medici Boy. Part of Cornell's Medici Slot Machine series, Medici Boy features repeated renderings of the early Italian Renaissance painter Bernardino Pinturicchio's Portrait of a Boy, within the context of a modern-day slot machine. An image of the boy appears at center, with smaller-scale renderings repeated along the two sides, alongside numbers and letters. The piece reflects some of the ways in which Cornell's oeuvre was a precursor of future innovative artistic developments. Its early use of a reproduction of an existing artwork heralded postmodern appropriation art, while its serial repetition of imagery and combination of "high" and "low" forms anticipate the work of Andy Warhol and Pop art.
Wood, paper, wire, glass, box construction - Estate of Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall)
Evoking a pinball machine, Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall combines Cornell's fascination with Bacall, then at the peak of her stardom, with his childhood memories of New York's penny arcades. Directly inspired by Cornell's dossier on the noted film actress, this piece is essentially a shrine to the movie star, who here appears as an object to be worshipped but never touched, thanks to the protective glass covering. As in Medici Boy, a central photograph of Bacall is flanked by smaller images of her, including scenes of city skyscrapers, perhaps included to refer to Bacall's time living in New York. This top row of images also suggests a filmstrip—further homage to the artist's love of cinema. Some writers have related the piece to the artist's similarly montage-like 1936 film Rose Hobart, named after the film star with whom Cornell was also obsessed, made by snippets from the actress' film East of Borneo in combination with shots from a documentary film of an eclipse.
Wood, paper, glass, box construction - Collection Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Bergman, Chicago
Cassiopeia 1 is dedicated to another of Cornell's primary interests: outer space. Darker in mood than many of Cornell's other works, the box focuses on the eponymous constellation placed beside an image of Taurus on the right side and, to the upper left, Orion. A white moon-like ball rests on two thin metal bars that are positioned vertically within the walls of the box. The central cosmic image suggests considerable depth, and makes the viewer feel as if she is looking through a window to another world. Created when the health of the artist's mother and brother began to worsen, the piece may be seen in poignant personal terms as a meditation on what lies beyond this world, as well as perhaps an image of the sense of alienation the reclusive artist experienced throughout his life.
Wood, metal, paper, glass, box construction - Estate of Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Oriental Painting of Bird with Cherry Blossoms)
With his mother and brother's worsening health in the 1960s, Cornell's family responsibilities increased and his time for his artwork correspondingly lessened. He returned to collage, which was less physically demanding than the shadow boxes. Most of the present piece is devoted to a bird pursuing an insect; along the bottom are three smaller images, including an outdoor garden structure and an insect stamp. The collage reflects the artist's knowledge of art history, acquired through his trips to New York City art museums. In particular, it evokes the genre of Chinese bird-and-flower painting. The work also reflects the artist's love of nature, particularly birds. Cornell, who created a series of boxes on the aviary theme, reportedly used to leave his windows open and spread birdseed out on his kitchen table to try and lure them into his home.
Paper collage - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.