IN THE FRAME / Joseph Cornell: Theatre of the Mind

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The Independent Culture
When the American artist Joseph Cornell died in 1973, at the age of 70, he was already renowned for his surreal and enigmatic boxes, which one critic called 'some of the most individual achievements in the entire modernist canon'. In an introductory essay to Theatre of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters and Files (Thames & Hudson pounds 24), Robert Motherwell lists Cornell's obsessions reflected in his boxes' contents: 'Birds and cages, empty cages, mirrors, ballerinas and theater folk (living and dead), foreign cities, Americana, Tom Thumb, Greta Garbo, Mallarme, Charlie Chaplin, neglected children, charts of the stars, wineglasses, pipes, corks, thimbles, indigo blue and milky white, silver tinsel, rubbed wood, wooden drawers filled with treasures, knobs, cheese boxes (as a joke), wooden balls, hoops, rings, corridors, prison bars, infinite alleys . . .'. (If the cheese boxes are a joke, what is the rest?)

Cornell's work began to have some success in the 1930s, and in 1938 he was included in New York's MOMA exhibition 'Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism'. Yet he lived almost all his life on the aptly-named Utopia Parkway, in Flushing, NY, with his mother and his brother Robert, a victim of cerebral palsy. Here he kept hundreds of boxes, many in the process of completion, and squirreled away his materials - 'trouvailles' ranging from scraps of rare and valuable Victorian photographs to trashy toys from the Five & Dime. In true surrealist manner, these would trigger ideas by providing the flash of 'illumination', the sudden confrontation of disparate objects that the poet Pierre Reverdy described.

Alongside this manic collecting of concrete things, Cornell wrote, and wrote in the same way in which he did everything: obsessively. This book contains only a small proportion of the letters, diaries, memos, lists and jottings that he poured out daily. They form a close counterpart, in written form, to the visual work, reflecting the same tortured sensibility and fiercely repressed sexuality, the desire for order and the fascination with chaos, the same wit. It's a book that can be read almost as a novel, so vivid is its portrait of this curious, reclusive personality, or perhaps even as a single, surrealist text.

There are 'formal' letters here, to publishers or critics, or correspondents such as Marianne Moore, which Cornell elaborated with paper collage: in one, an armadillo holds in its paws a rococo scroll that reads 'Dear Miss Moore', and a Renaissance clown figure runs away with a map of the world at the end. A typed letter to Mina Loy is half one way up, half the other, with symmetrical cutout chinaman-dolls whizzing down slanted ruled lines. The writings show how his artistic influences live in his mind: Juan Gris, Brancusi, Duchamp, de Chirico and Max Ernst, among others, but it was perhaps the poets he loved - de Nerval, Mallarme, Emily Dickinson - who provided his special atmosphere.

Explicit in Cornell's writing is his intense, always unrequited feeling for young girls - often the daughters of friends, or 'once-seens', young women at checkouts, or waitresses in the lonely, Edward-Hopper-world cafeterias he loved. These he called his nymphs, his fairies (the 'fee aux lapins', for instance, was a shop assistant who sold toy bunnies) but the longing for these 'moppets' was in the realm of the unreal, summed up by a line from T S Eliot he used in his collage 'Hotel de L'Etoile': 'the laughing children in the shrubbery . . . the moment in and out of time'. If the relationship came any closer, it would send Cornell scuttling back to the Christian Science texts in which he was a lifelong believer.

Only 'Tina', as he called Joyce Hunter (it was short for 'teenager'), became a fully-fledged and lasting obsession, although theirs was hardly a relationship in any conventional sense. She was a 'be-bopper', the cashier at Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum in Times Square, and mildly criminal: she was later accused of stealing some of Cornell's boxes; she was eventually found murdered. Cornell's most abstracted notes to himself echo again and again with her name:

1/3/62 3:00am


Morgan Library

Tina inspiration both strong

certain salient sharpnesses

the Raphael wash

the Shakespeare colors

'bird & bough & raindrops'

la feerie orange mist-covered towers


Obscure, certainly; but perhaps this 'maestro of absences' (as one critic dubbed him) decided, like his favourite fellow-recluse Emily Dickinson, to 'dwell in Possibilty - / A Fairer House than Prose . . .'