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Joseph Cornell Showed Mastery in Box Assemblages


“Shadow boxes become poetic theater 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 waterless subtle, as when driftwood pieces make up a proscenium to set off the dazzling white of sea foam and billowy cloud crystallized in a pipe of fancy.”

Joseph Cornell


American artist Joseph Cornell is well known for his Surrealist assemblage pieces displayed in shallow wooden boxes. Cornell created pieces that included discovered materials placed in narrative dioramas, including dolls, pictures, bottles, and other tiny treasures. Joseph Cornell\’s best-known works are glass-fronted boxes into which he inserted and arranged Victorian bric-a-brac, antique pictures, dime-store trinkets, and other miscellaneous components, using the Surrealist technique of unexpected juxtaposition. He holds a unique place in the history of twentieth-century American art because of his creative box creations, experimental films, and collages. Cornell\’s works blend disparate pieces together in wonderfully allusive assemblages that reject fixed narratives or a single interpretation. They are composed of found artefacts gathered from souvenir shops, penny arcades, dime stores, and discarded materials.


Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York on December 24, 1903.  Cornell never went to college and never received a traditional art education. He read much, though, and went out of his way to seek out other cultural encounters. He routinely went to ballet and theatre performances, listened to classical music, and went to galleries and museums. From 1921 to 1931, Joseph Cornell worked in Manhattan as a textile and fabric salesperson, but he was fired during the Great Depression. After that, he spent some time working as a door-to-door salesperson. By the 1930s, he was also making money off of his work. He pursued his artistic endeavours in his spare time while working those jobs.


He usually worked in his home\’s basement while his mother and brother were asleep. By 1940, Cornell had achieved enough fame with his works of art to be able to give up his day job and devote himself entirely to his artistic career. He made shadow boxes about a variety of topics in the 1940s and 1950s, including birds, celebrities, and the Medici. His most well-known box, Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (1946), was influenced by the Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart film To Have and Have Not.


Artist Joseph Cornell produced about 28 films between 1936 and 1968, all silent but for the sporadic musical soundtrack, some in colour and some in black and white, none longer than twenty minutes. With the probable exception of Rose Hobart (1936), Cornell\’s debut film, these works are mostly unknown to the public outside of a limited group of Cornell academics and art historians who are particularly interested in the artist\’s small-scale, hauntingly mysterious \”memory boxes.\” In a 1946 letter to French cinema historian Claude Sebanne, Cornell described how he had discovered that film had the ability to \”put down a record Atget-like\” and that it shared with his work in assemblage a curiosity with memory and the recoverability of the past. Additionally, the \”found\” aesthetic that Cornell incorporated into his filmmaking confounds concepts of individual invention, just like the sheer size and obscurity of Atget\’s photographic library appear to displace widely held beliefs about originality and authorship.


American 20th-century art was significantly influenced by Joseph Cornell\’s work. In the 1960s, he filled a gap between Surrealism and the emergence of Pop Art and installation art. He served as an inspiration to notable individuals like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. The film critic J. Hoberman referred to Cornell as a \”progenitor of American avant-garde film,\” noting that Cornell made a significant contribution to the growth of cinema.



  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Cornell
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jul/25/joseph-cornell-wanderlust-royal-academy-exhibition-london
  3. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/cornell-joseph/

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