AUGUST DAY 17
For the Silly Season I've set myself the challenge of visiting a different art exhibition on every day of the month and blogging about it.
Monday August 17
Exhibition: Joseph Cornell
Place: Royal Academy of Arts
The New Yorker Joseph Cornell was a collagist who became best known for his boxed vitrines, in which he arranged and displayed found pictures and objects. On Day 15 I was looking at the highly politicized collages of Peter Kennard, made in response to world events such as the Vietnam War and apartheid. Cornell couldn’t be more different. His collages, like those of the modernists in general, make little attempt to conceal their cut-and-paste technique.
Also, there is no politics whatsoever here, and very little emotion. Sex is almost completely absent – just one half-nude image of the starlet Jocelyn Lane and although this has erotic implications, they’re diluted by the fact that Lane is being cast as Andromeda the mythological bait for a sea monster, an established subject in academic painting.
For Cornell, childhood games are more appealing than adult lusts. There is much here of the obsessive 10-year-old collector of odds and ends, and of the game of putting them together to serve as toys, tell stories or make miniature stage sets. Although it is impossibility for the visitor even to touch the exhibits, it’s important to note that Cornell intended many of these objects to be handled, their contents taken out, or the container itself moved around to create movement within. Perhaps for this reason, they can be noticeably worn and scuffed, if not battered.
Cornell was close to Marcel Duchamp and there is a lot of Dada’s inventiveness in these manipulations of found objects, though for me they don’t achieve the wit or the singular simplicity of R. Mutt’s urinal, Duchamp’s bottle rack or Arp’s toothed electric iron.
The boxes, with their hinged glass fronts, remind me of boxes used by Orthodox Christians to keep icons in. That’s very appropriate to several of the exhibition items where portraits are centrally placed – in one series, or instance, of the Renaissance Medici family.
Many of Cornell’s vitrines include or resolve into grids – one fine abstract example being Dovecotes – and there’s also a running motifs of the cage and the parakeet. What psychological resonance this fact has might well accord with the oddity of Cornell’s attitude to travel. The show is called Wanderlust, and has many evocations of faraway places, on earth and around the universe. Yet Cornell himself, despite having many opportunities to travel, never left New York State. RA visitors puzzled by that, and noticing the artist’s repeated use of cages – and cage-birds – will have to figure it out for themselves.