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


Joseph Cornell (1903 - 1972)
signed and dated 'Joseph Cornell 1933' (on the underside of the lid)
paper butterfly and glitter in cardboard box
diameter: 1 ¼in. (3.2cm.)
Executed in 1933
Howard Hussey, Philadelphia (gift from the artist).
Private Collection, Paris.
Galerie 1900-2000, Paris.
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 2000.


Alessandro Diotallevi
Alessandro Diotallevi


‘... perhaps a definition of a box could be as a kind of “forgotten game”, a philosophical toy of the Victorian era, with poetic or magical “moving parts”, achieving even slight measure of this poetry or magic ... that golden age of the toy alone should justify the “box’s” existence’

‘Stay near me—do not take thy flight!
A little longer stay in sight!
Much converse do I find in thee,
Historian of my infancy!
Float near me; do not yet depart!
Dead times revive in thee:
Thou bring’st, gay creature as thou art!
A solemn image to my heart’

These two charming box constructions by Joseph Cornell, both Untitled, date from 1933 – only one year after the first ever public exhibition of his work. Each consists of a shallow, circular cardboard pillbox just 3.2cm in diameter, signed and dated within the lid. Inside, Cornell conjures objects into poetry. One box is painted royal blue; lined with a printed illustration of a swan, it holds two plastic pearls and a white feather that curls round its snug container. The other, in red, its inner base adorned with a spiral, encloses a painted paper butterfly and a scattering of tiny, loose silver sequins. Cornell had first started to make art in 1931, inspired by the Surrealist engraving-collages of Max Ernst’s book La femme 100 tetes (1929). In 1932, he displayed an exhibition of ‘Minutiae, Glass Bells, Shadow Boxes, Coups d’oeil, and Jouets surréalistes’ at Julien Levy Gallery, New York; four years later, he would be featured in the major exhibition ‘Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism,’ directed by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He would spend the next four decades constructing his esoteric, beautiful and often haunting assemblages in the basement of his house on Utopia Parkway, Queens, where he lived with his mother and disabled brother. The two present works, from the earliest stage of his career, set out some of his most enduring and vital themes. The red box’s butterfly is suggestive of flight, travel, and ephemeral beauty, while its spiral motif connotes his mystic fascination with cyclical time and cosmology, as well as the kinetic Rotoreliefs of his friend Marcel Duchamp. The swan, pearls and feather in the blue box, meanwhile, allude to one of Cornell’s grandest obsessions: the grace and enigma of the Romantic ballet. He would later build shrines to 19th century starlets such as Carlotta Grisi, Marie Taglioni, and Fanny Cerrito, and became a friend of the contemporary New York ballerina Allegra Kent. For all these far-flung passions, however, Cornell almost never left his immediate neighbourhood. Confined to his basement studio, he created his works from a vast archive – almost a personal museum – of ephemera, trinkets and printed material gathered from local secondhand shops. A voyager of the mind, he could fit fantastic worlds inside a box.

Far from the naive recluse as which he has often been characterised, Cornell was a complex, paradoxical figure. He was intensely shy, yet enjoyed considerable success in his lifetime and maintained an important circle of friends in the artistic and literary worlds of New York. His art was singular and eccentric, but shared in some of the key ideas of Surrealism and even, well before its time, Pop Art. He was an adherent to Christian Science – a faith whose dismissal of the objective universe’s reality favoured a focus on his interior life and reveries – yet he remained intensely alive to modern culture and the world around him. Indeed, such was the joy he found in the objects, stories and dreams that inspired his work that the Surrealist label is an uneasy fit. Rather than juxtaposing or mutating items to explore the dark territories of the subconscious, he celebrated their innate, associative wonder as things in themselves. For all their apparent obsessiveness, neither were his box constructions born of fetishism, at least not in the usual sense: his gaze was wide-ranging, and transcended notions of intrinsic value. A dime-store ornament was as worthy of devotion as a Medici portrait. As Diane Solomon has written, ‘a cursory glance at Cornell’s boxes could lead you to think that he was constructing reliquaries for coveted possessions, when in fact his talent lay in alchemising commonly discarded objects into a visually compelling state of being’ (D. Solomon, ‘Joseph Cornell: Pioneer of assemblage art,’ RA Magazine, 21 May 2015). Rather than a Surrealist, Cornell was more like a magic realist, composing his humble materials towards a state of dreamlike rhapsody.

The two present works display Cornell’s enchanted touch in exquisitely distilled arrangements. The red box’s paper butterfly is cut out and painted with astonishing care: Cornell has even fashioned tiny antennae from strands of blue thread, offsetting its muted tones with a tint of exotic splendour that is heightened by the glittering sequins. The rich blue of the other box provides an aptly balletic glow of imperial glamour, evoking plush dressing-rooms and lined carriages drawn through snowy nights. Its feather and pearls have been chosen to fit perfectly within: they enhance the synecdochic power of the swan’s image while also veiling it from view, reflecting Cornell’s wistful yearning for the faded era of fin-de-siècle magic that he so achingly loved. As Adam Gopnik has written, Cornell ‘is an artist of longings, but his longings are for things known and seen and hard to keep. He didn’t long to go to France; he longed to build memorials to the feeling of wanting to go to France while riding the Third Avenue El. He preferred the ticket to the trip, the postcard to the place, the fragment to the whole’ (A. Gopnik, ‘Sparkings,’ New Yorker, 17 February 2003). The feather speaks of a bird long flown away; the butterfly is imprisoned even as it is enshrined. Cornell chooses to dream from afar, even if, like luxuries sparkling behind shop-windows, the worlds he summons are not entirely beyond reach. What he offers is an art of nostalgia and interiority – of journeys within, of moments, memories and ideas caught in things – that makes everyday existence into something precious, and worth treasuring.