Friday, September 25, 2015

Joseph Cornell: glow in the dark

A few weeks ago I took a close friend to the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy to celebrate my birthday. She knew of his work, and that he was my favourite artist. We took a few hours to get through everything - I couldn't help pointing out extra facts about my favourite works, and getting excited about hearing Cornell's own voice on the audio commentary. As we were leaving my friend said, 'You know, I can see why you like him. So many things in there reminded me of you.'

Royal Academy of Arts
Exhibition handout

When I was a child my mother bought me a glow-in-the-dark book of the night sky. It had the constellations picked out in phosphorescent paint, hidden in beautiful line drawings of nymphs and mythical animals. When you took it outside the illustrations disappeared and only the stars were left.

Untitled (Sagittarius, Scorpio, and Lupus Constellations), c.1934
by Joseph Cornell

Like any kid, I liked things that glowed in the dark. It's no mystery: something small and bright to focus on when the darkness seems thick and oppressive. Unlike the stars, the glow fades gradually, unless you shine something on it to make it 'live' again. It's like a fantasy of stars instead of the stars themselves.

Untitled (Tamara Toumanova), c.1940

But I also liked the illustrations and stories behind the stars. That glow-in-the-dark book was not the night sky; it was a whole different thing, a man-made fantasy of a place only looked at and never visited.

Palace, 1943.

Cornell's influence continues today: Nick Bantock, creator of the fantastic Griffin and Sabine books; Dave McKean, comic book illustrator, and several other artists I love have paid tribute to him. He was a contemporary and acquaintance of Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali (who famously claimed that Cornell had stolen the idea for a short film 'from his subconscious'), Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol, among other figures of American modernism.

Pharmacy, 1943.

For all his talent and fame, Cornell was an intensely lonely man; endlessly creating fantasy versions of places he never visited, yearning after women but unable to sustain relationships with them; surrounding himself with cultured and talented friends but preferring written letters to prolonged interaction. He felt deeply, but could never quite manage to reach out. At the end of his life he said to his sister, 'I wish I hadn't been so reserved.'

Joseph Cornell, 1933
Photograph by Lee Miller

This isolated man was able to create entire fantasy kingdoms and imaginary personas that reached the hearts of thousands of people. Awkward and lonely in life, he made art that struck a chord deep within successive generations. Joseph Cornell's art shone out through his troubled life and introverted personality, and to his admirers, his glow-in-the-dark stars are as beautiful as the real ones.

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