Joseph Cornell

gigatos | January 9, 2022


Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack on December 24, 1903 to Joseph Cornell and Helen Ten Broeck Storms, the first of four children along with Elizabeth, Helen and Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy, to which the artist was always very close. He devoted his life to caring for his younger brother Robert, who lived with cerebral palsy, which was another factor in his lack of relationships. At some point in 1920, he read the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, including Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Cornell considered this ”work by Eddy to be among the most important books ever published since the Bible, and he became a permanent follower of Christian Scientist.The Cornells were a wealthy family of Dutch descent and art enthusiasts; his mother, Helen, even wrote a subject for a film.

The year 1917 marks a turning point in Cornell”s life: with the death of his father, sick with leukemia, he moved to Massachusetts where he enrolled in the faculty of science and romance languages, but the family soon began to have financial problems and after just two years Cornell was forced to abandon his studies.

Back in New York, Cornell found work in the offices of a textile factory; in 1921 he began working as a door-to-door salesman, which lasted until 1931. It was this job that gave him an interest in collecting: by selling door to door he had the opportunity to wander around the city and began to collect objects of all kinds, from records to copies of old films to letters, anchors and magazines.

Subsequently, his production increased as he approached other arts: he worked as a freelance designer for Vogue, designed fabrics, and approached cinema, of which he had always been passionate, with the writing of a screenplay, Monsieur Phot, and the editing of Rose Hobart, his first film screened in 1936.

The ”50s are the most productive years for Cornell to the point that he is forced to hire collaborators to help him in his work. Cornell already knew all the contemporary artists but continued to lead a private life in “Utopia Parkaway”, the house purchased in Bayside in ”29 by the family, where he lived until his death in 1972 from a heart attack.

Sculpture and assemblage

The production that is most often remembered about Cornell is the one related to “the boxes” (shadow boxes).

The latter were composed of a wooden box, closed by a glass inside which were assembled the same “relics” that were part of his mammoth personal collection. The criteria of assembly were quite random, in fact he believed that objects taken from the most disparate corners of the city and composed together could create a work of art.

The city for him had an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of places, his task was to create links; his work, as he defines it, “is just the natural consequence of my love for the city”. Cornell fits within Modernism through the reconstruction of a personal world from fragments of a world rediscovered through wandering the streets of New York.

Cornell has never frequented the circle of surrealists and dadaists contemporary to him, but not for this reason his poetics is very different; the case in his work always has a fundamental role, he is co-author but submitting to the case, for Cornell, is useful to reveal the ego and its obsessions and here is the distance from the two currents mentioned above.

Experimental Cinematography

Rose Hobart, also known as Ourang or White Captive, is the first film made by Joseph Cornell. It is a 19-minute short film and is a remount of the film East of Borneo (1931, directed by George Melford). The title is named after the star of the original film, Rose Hobart, whom Cornell loved dearly. Cornell slows down the projection speed from 24 frames per second to 16, introduces as the only background music a recording of Brazilian music, decides to take fragments from the film that see Rose Hobart framed and to color them blue with the technique of imbibition to give that nocturnal effect typical of silent films, creating from a genre film a fascinating if mysterious dreamlike portrait of a woman. Many would later follow his example: Lewis Khlar with Her Fragrant Emulsion of 1987 and Gianfranco Baruchello and Alberto Grifi with La verifica incerta (Disperse Exclamatory Phase) of 1965, for which the two authors were openly inspired by Cornell”s work. Cornell”s film was screened in 1936 at Julian Levy”s New York City Gallery where an episode occurred that greatly conditioned the author”s will regarding the circulation of his production: once in the theater, Salvador Dalí stood up screaming and claiming that Cornell had stolen the idea from his mind.

Although he had no intention of circulating these materials, production continued until the artist”s death. In creating his works, Cornell edited together images and clips from old Hollywood films he found during his travels, guided only by the emotion suggested by the images in front of him. The scenes are interrupted, we don”t know what the actors are saying, nor to whom, we only remember the images.


  1. Joseph Cornell
  2. Joseph Cornell
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