Joseph Cornell: Royal Academy


When I was a child, one Christmas I was given a gift which had quite a magical effect on me. It was a brightly coloured, small round box, designed to look like a drum. On opening the lid there was a tiny mouse inside with little gems for eyes and real fur. I think this object was a brooch. The memory has always stayed with me; the delight of the little box and the magical effect of what was inside it. This was the feeling I was reminded of on my recent visit to the exhibition called Wanderlust at the Royal Academy.

Joseph Cornell was someone who obviously didn't throw much away. He kept mementos and collected found objects, squirrelling them away in files. From a young age he entertained his severely disabled younger brother with objects he had made from this burgeoning collection and often presented them to him in boxes such as this one below which glitters and jiggles and is lined with mirrors.

Untitled (Beehive, Thimble Forest)1948

It's a shame that as we grow older we tend to move away from this rather childlike fascination with the minuscule and start 'thinking big'. We are so often sold the idea that biggest is best. Just think how big cars have got (even the Mini is overweight) and furniture too, in fact a lot of material stuff...including art, yes, art's got huge. Yet the bigger something gets the more it seems to lose some of its magic; we have to stand back to take it all in, which means distancing ourselves. In doing this we lose something that as humans we really like to do which is to use our eyes to peer into things and search for something that lies within.

This peering and searching is part of the lasting appeal of Cornell's work. Looking into these often small pieces creates an intimacy which I felt was lessened in some of his larger work. I perceived a slightly voyeuristic and obsessive element in his work too, especially when he reveals his fixation with certain women. However, I found these factors supplied a much needed dark element in these otherwise magical and innocent artworks.


Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), 1945-46



This exhibition is on until 27 September. 





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