Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
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Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)

Soap Bubble Set

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Soap Bubble Set
signed 'Joseph Cornell' (on a label affixed to the reverse)
wood box construction--wood, printed paper collage, paint, glass, clay pipe, glass marbles, metal, velvet and cork
15 1/4 x 20 3/8 x 3 1/2 in. (38.7 x 51.7 x 8.8 cm.)
Executed in 1948.
Doris Starrels, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1971
D. Ashton, A Joseph Cornell Album, New York, 1974, p. 98, no. 98 (illustrated).
D. Waldman, Joseph Cornell, New York, 1977, no. 24 (illustrated in color).
Beverly Hills, Copley Galleries, Objects by Joseph Cornell, September 1948, no. 27.
Pasadena Art Museum, An Exhibition of Works by Joseph Cornell, December 1966-February 1967, pp. 36 and 62, no. 24 (illustrated).
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, October 1969-February 1970, p. 43, no. 36.
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Cornell in Chicago, November 1973-January 1974.
New York, Museum of Modern Art; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery; Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle; Florence, Palazzo Pitti; Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris and Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Cornell, November 1980-March 1982. Exhibited in Chicago only, no. S-11.
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Constantly dreaming of worlds outside his own reach, Cornell was an obsessive and eccentric collector of the tangible fragments of life, possessing a natural talent for arranging mundane objects in unexpectedly poetic and evocative combinations. A true alchemist, he injected metaphysical dimensions into everyday banalities. Redolent of Surrealism in their open-ended juxtapositions and of Dada in their invocation of found objects, Cornell’s boxes reflect a singular vision. Part of the artist’s most acclaimed series, Soap Bubble Set features an unconventional collection of trinkets amidst compendia of data, thereby evoking both the hand of a magician and a scientist at work.

First exhibited at Objects by Joseph Cornell at William Copley’s eponymous gallery in Beverly Hills in 1948, Cornell described the group of four Soap Bubble Sets that appeared in the exhibition accordingly:
“Soap Bubble Sets: Shadow boxes become poetic theatres or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime. The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets—a connotation of moon and tides—the association of water less subtle, as when driftwood [sic] pieces make up a proscenium to set off the dazzling white of sea-foam and billowy cloud crystalized in a pipe of fancy” (J. Cornell, quoted in W. Copley, Objects by Joseph Cornell, exh. cat., Copley Gallery, 1948, n.p.).

To achieve this dazzling effect, Cornell pulled inspiration from a wide range of sources—including the Victorian scientific literature of C.V. Boys, such as Soap-Bubbles and the Forces Which Mould Them, advertisements for Pear’s Soap, and a Christian Science Monitor illustration of the 17th century Dutch vanitas painting by Jacob van Oost, Boys Blowing Bubbles. In fact, pictorially erudite Cornell, who was most familiar with the Dutch tradition of memento mori, used the imagery of bubbles—or lack thereof—as if to signify the memory of bubbles long since burst. And yet, perhaps the most iconic element of the artist’s Soap Bubble Sets are the Dutch clay pipes themselves, which the artist acquired in bulk at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. And while the pipes easily recall Man Ray’s Ce qui manque à nous tous, 1936, and René Magritte’s famous La trahison des images, which was shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in January 1936 during the artist’s first solo show in America, it was, in fact, another painting first introduced to Cornell at the World’s Fair which resonated more profoundly with the soap bubble sets—Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin’s Soap Bubbles. Cornell would, in fact, utilize these pipes within his box constructions, almost without restraint, for the entirety of his career—he even scattered them among the boxes displayed on glass shelves at his Copley exhibition.

And yet, at this time, most compelling for Cornell must have been the Fair’s unwavering emphasis on modern science, which offered an intriguing counterpart to his fascination with the natural philosophies of the past. Of particular intrigue to Cornell would have been the demonstrations of astonishing new advances in astronomy technology. Together with the opening of the Hayden Planetarium in New York in 1935, the displays at the 1939 World’s Fair offered New Yorkers unprecedented opportunities to learn about the cosmos. Cornell’s first soap bubble sets and their early variants were created within the context of intense public interest in cutting-edge science and technology. However, the scientific subtleties of his soap bubble sets were all too often overshadowed by the apparent whimsical charm of his fairytale boxes. “Cornell adopted Christian Science as a set of conventions and was interested in Renaissance views of Christianity,” Walter Hopps explained, “but he was outside of that, too. He also looked at the heavens in a way that scientists do. He had an extraordinary romantic faith in the innocence of children and he liked animals in certain ways, but a major part of his spirituality was bound up in the poetics of where science leads” (W. Hopps, Joseph Cornell: Shadow Play Eterniday, London, 2003, p. 82).

Indeed, from his earliest collages to his latest boxes, Cornell’s work is rife with countless references to the sun, moon, planets, stars and space. Cosmology constituted one of the artist’s fundamental interests: he frequented the Hayden Planetarium, subscribed to its periodical, and owned over thirty books on astronomy. Cornell was fascinated by the evolution of different models of the universe and included engravings and photocopies of pre-Kepler world systems in his work. Constellations and star maps of the night sky had particular resonance for the artist. They were one of the most potent of human inventions, fixed long before man had discovered the laws governing the movement of the planets. Stars provided sailors with a system of nocturnal navigation and birds with directional sense during their epic migrations. Cornell harbored dreams of voyage; although he never strayed far from the axis between his home in Utopia Parkway, Flushing and Manhattan, his peripatetic intelligence filtered allusions to travel. His interest in celestial systems also served as a metaphor for grappling with the spiritual realm; he often included charts and diagrams that proffered some semblance of order to the unknown.

For someone like Cornell, who never traveled beyond his hometown, this emphasis on the cosmos allowed him to imagine voyages to the farthest reaches of places possible. “Cornell took up the challenge of communicating the joy of beauty, the beauty of joy—penultimate, subjective abstractions—each time he made a box or collage. In the process he developed thematic paths toward his goal, enlisting as his principal guides the concepts of spirituality, exploration, chance, and play, as well as the passage of time, the cult of personality, the celestial, and the natural.” (L. R. Hartigan, “Joseph Cornell’s Dance with Duality,” Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, London, 2003, p. 23). Cornell’s boxes traverse through space and time because of the artist’s ability to compress and richly juxtapose objects and images to convey a sense of infinite possibility. Despite his cloistered life, Cornell continuously invented parallel universes where the laws of this world are suspended; his box constructions are souvenirs of his imaginary journeys.


Kevie Yang
Kevie Yang

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