The shy, reclusive and self taught maker of shadow boxes and experimental films, Joseph Cornell , rarely left New York State, with the exception of a few college years in Andover, Mass, spending most of his life in a modest house in the beautifully named Utopia Parkway, Queens, caring for his mother and disabled brother. His artwork is filled with a yearning for the unobtainable ; birds with their freedom of flight, glamorous movie stars and ballerinas as the source of passionate, platonic romances and especially travel to the most luxurious and wondrous locations.
Hotels are a common feature of his shadow boxes, miniature visions of rest stops and trysting places for artistic, mythological and astrological archetypes as they travel through the starry Empyrean and the wastes of infinity.
Different day a different stage set, yet another illusion conjured up by Le Bateleur. Yet the Melancholy Lieutenant had to admit that there was something beguiling about the ersatz realm of Eden Falls, this vast pile comprised of the elements and detritus of his unconscious mind; dim memories, vague recollections, submerged dreams and hopeless longings.
Well maybe to others there was nothing to see hear there and would move on right away but as he lay in bed listening to the incessant rain beat against the windows and the gables or wandered through corridors that sometimes veered and forked unexpectedly, leading to previously undiscovered and undisturbed rooms that somehow seemed caught in flagrante before hastily re-assuming an innocent expression he would be soothed and think that this was maybe the home he had searched for so long, it seemed that it was what we dream of. But no, this couldn’t be the case, for where in the world was the Ingénue? At best this was a luxurious rest stop for the weary soul of the inter-dimensional adventurer, but more probably than not a trap, a monumental fur-lined prison to facilitate an eased institutionalisation.
The Melancholy Lieutenant knew he had to be on guard, always on the look-out for clues, searching for the way out of Eden Falls. Maybe he would find the key to escape in the jigsaw puzzles, pop-up books and illustrations in the volumes lining the infinite shelves?
The Forrest Gump of the international avant-garde, Mina Loy had the unerring knack of being in the right place at just the right time. Born in London in 1882 to an Hungarian Jewish father and an English Protestant mother Loy caught the tail-end of the fin-de-siecle in Jugendstil infatuated Munich in 1899. She moved to Paris in 1903 and entered the circle of writers and artists centred around Gertrude Stein. 1907 saw her de-camping to Florence where she spouted Futurist aphorisms with Marinetti and his cohorts. 1916 saw Loy sail for New York where she promptly made the acquaintance of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.
It was in New York that she met and fell in love with the love of her life, the heavyweight champion of the Dada-verse and nephew of Oscar Wilde, the poet-boxer Arthur Cravan. They were married in Mexico City in 1918. Afterwards they intended to move to Argentina; however lack of funds and the fact that Loy was pregnant with Cravan’s child meant that only Loy took the commercial liner while Cravan set off in a small sail boat with the intention that they would met again in Buenos Aires. Cravan was never seen or heard of again; presumably the boat capsized and he drowned in the Pacific, however his disappearance has led to some wild and improbable theories, my favourite being that Arthur Cravan became the mysteriously reclusive, anarchist novelist B.Traven, famous for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that was made into a film of the same name by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart.
The twenties saw Loy in the thick of modernist Paris. She published her collection of poems Lunar Baedeker and with the backing of Peggy Guggenheim opened a shop selling decorated lamp-shades. In 1933 she begin her close friendship with the German Surrealist Richard Oelze (see The Expectation) which resulted in her posthumously published Surrealist novel Insel, with its insightful (though disguised) portraits of Andre Breton, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. Loy states that there is something ‘fundamentally black-magicky about the surrealists.’
Loy moved to America in 1936, this time for good. She settled in the Bowery district of New York City which was soon to become the world’s art capital. Here she made collages out of the rubbish she collected around her home and be-friended the shy Surrealist artist of Utopia Parkway, Joseph Cornell.
Joseph Cornell (see Dreams of Desire 36 (Girl with Braid) was passionately attached to the idea of travel even though he very rarely left his home state of New York during his life. He created several series of boxes featuring birds, which act as surrogates for his fantasies of flight, and also of hotels, some of which are so otherworldly and celestial they suggest rest-stops for demigods and goddess as they travel between the constellations more than overnight accommodation for regular humans.
During the 1950’s produced several boxes in the Hotel De L’Etoile series. The word etoile means star and the boxes play with the double meaning of star, the ones in the sky and the ones of the stage and screen. Both kinds were equally unattainable for Cornell, despite several intense platonic relationship with ballerinas; yet he remained a devoted and lucid observer of the night-sky, ballet and movies.
The above box from the series features a cut-out from a girlie magazine, slightly obscured by a singular column. The glass is blue, Cornell’s favourite colour along with white, a shade of blue that evokes sex, melancholy and a luscious eternal night.
In the early 1930’s a young salesman who lived on Utopia Parkway, Queens, while browsing in a bookstore, as was his habit when he had some spare time, came across a book that was to forever change his life . It was Max Ernst’s collage novel La Femme 100 Tetes, and from it’s marvellous pages, the shy and dreamy young man, whose name was Joseph Cornell realised that you didn’t have to be a trained painter to be an artist; art could be made out of everyday objects with the aid of a pair of scissors and a pot of glue. Inspired Cornell would create collages late at night after his mother and his beloved brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy and Joseph cared for, went to bed.
From collages Joseph Cornell went on to assemble his fabulous, intricate glass-paned shadow boxes that create in miniature beautiful and sublimely mysterious dream-worlds.
The above collage conveys Cornell intense and yearning romanticism. Although in many respects Cornell had a highly successful artistic career and everyone in the art world would visit Cornell when in New York, he remained a reserved and reclusive figure. He never married and remained in his mother’s modest house on Utopia Parkway until his death in 1972.