alexandra blum

First published in: Journal of Illustration Volume 3 Number 1 © 2016 Intellect Ltd Review. English language. doi: 10.1386/jill.3.1.153_5

JILL 3 (1) pp. 153–161 Intellect Limited 2016


Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 4 July–27 September 2015

Reviewed by Alexandra Blum, Artist

‘The end is the beginning’ flashes onto a screen as I enter Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Fittingly, I am uncertain as to whereabouts in the film loop of Gnir Rednow (Cornell and Brakhage 1955–1960, cat. 80) I had stumbled. Split into four themed sections, the show matches up to curator Sarah Lea’s vision of presenting Cornell’s myriad interests with a wide-ranging selection of his collages, boxes, dossiers and film. It also launches the visitor upon a voyage where the mundane is transformed into the wondrous. As I travel through the show, it is Cornell’s fascination with spatial experience that unexpectedly emerges as a cornerstone of his life and work.

Gnir Rednow sets this tone from the outset. Cornell assembled the film from unused footage shot for The Wonder Ring, a film he commissioned Stan Brakhage to create in 1955, documenting the Third Avenue Elevated Railway in New York just before its closure (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 240). Watching the film is a disorienting spatial experience. Cornell intended Gnir Rednow to be projected in any of four ways (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 240), and here it is reversed and flipped. Multiple camera viewpoints, one moment focused within a train carriage, the next through reflections on train windows glimpsing buildings speeding by, a little later stationary on the platform observing the train pulling away, combine with the reversal and flipping of the film to take the viewer unawares. We are presented with a familiar experience, an urban train journey. Yet the film repeatedly forces us not to take anything for granted, to consciously locate ourselves within the space as it unfolds. We begin to experience the mundane from an altered perspective. We find ourselves in impossible spatial positions, with light bulbs and strap handles countering gravity, hanging upwards, while at another point we feel as though miraculously suspended in an inverted sky, gazing up at (yet down on) the red roofs of buildings.

Despite the dominant horizontal movement of the train parallel to the surface of the screen, the layered ambiguity of the images and multiple viewpoints create an encompassing spatial experience. We are not onlookers, observing the film from an objective distance within the gallery. Instead, we imaginatively inhabit the journey along the railway. It is as if the impenetrable flatness of the screen has been dissolved and we are able to locate our subjective spatial awareness actually inside the film.

Cornell is renowned for having rarely left New York City, where he lived with, and assumed responsibility for, his widowed mother and invalid brother Robert. Yet his wanderings through New York’s streets, initially while working as a textile salesman, and the discoveries he made in shops on ‘Book Row’ and the surrounding Manhattan area (Hartigan 2006: 20) fuelled a passion for collecting, stimulating his imaginative travels to ‘foreign places and distant times’ (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 20). However, the inclusion of Object (Compass Set) (1940, cat. 28), in the show demonstrates how journeying through city spaces provided more than the opportunity for acquiring the ephemera, books, magazines and other physical elements of his burgeoning collection – the very collection from which he constructed his collages, boxes and dossiers. It also gave rise to epiphanies, moments of revelation. For an interview in Life magazine, 15 December 1967, Cornell describes his reaction to seeing a window display of compasses:

‘I thought, everything can be used in a lifetime, can’t it, and went on walking. I’d scarcely gone two blocks when I came on another shop window full of boxes, all different kinds […] Half way home on the train that night, I thought of the compasses and boxes, and it occurred to me to put the two together’. (Bourdon 1967 quoted in Hartigan 2006: 56; Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 128)

Moving through space, being out in the city and observing his responses to the new sights and sensations he discovered within familiar locations were clearly intrinsic to Cornell’s creative process.

Object Fenetre (1937, cat. 17), a small concertina book, just 7.5×4.8×2.7cm when closed, embodies these sensitivities. Each page contains a photostat of a window and, displayed snaking through a vitrine, it has a playful quality. Almost an exercise in spot the difference, I wanted to pick it up, rearrange its jointed pages in space, inspect the differences between similar, but unique, windows. The next day, walking through the streets of London, I realize how, despite its diminutive scale, Object Fenetre has impacted upon my own experience of the city. I am suddenly aware of the multitude of windows surrounding me, their rhythms punctuating facades, marking space both horizontally and vertically. Testament to the density of London’s inhabitants, defining boundaries between interior and exterior, the windows put me in the position of both voyeur and spied upon. In this way, Object Fenetre is not only descriptive of observations Cornell made in the city, but encourages that same alertness and process of observation to take place in the viewer’s subsequent encounters with the ‘real’ world.

As a motif, the window recurs in the show (Palace, 1943 cat. 37 [Figure 2] and Toward the Blue Peninsula: For Emily Dickinson, c. 1953 cat. 62 [Figure 1] for example) and throughout Cornell’s career (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 107); he dedicated an entire source file to ‘Windows’ c. 1950s–1960s (Hartigan 2006: 303). It is also inherent to the actual structure of the boxes where the glass panes both ‘reveal and protect their contents’ (Hartigan 2006: 303), manifesting Cornell’s fascination with shop windows, their displays and the tension between being invited in yet kept at a tantalizing distance. The evocative allure of the window is especially evident in Toward the Blue Peninsula: For Emily Dickinson. Here, successive windows, the glass-fronted panel of the box, followed by the rectangular aperture in the cage-like wire mesh, in turn opening out onto a framed, blue surface reminiscent of sea and sky, create a sensation of escape towards an infinitely distant horizon.

The juxtaposition of this potential escape with the stark, enclosed interior space of the box generates an atmosphere of longing and yearning. Cornell has created an exquisite moment of equilibrium where an unfulfilled, yet potentially possible, desire remains intact, untainted by the reality or excess of gratification. This sensation is reinforced with the work’s title, which refers to a line from a poem written by Emily Dickinson in 1862, reproduced in this show on the gallery walls: ‘It might be easier to fail – with Land in Sight / than gain – My Blue Peninsula / to perish – of Delight’ (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 204). Both box and poem evoke spatial extremes to articulate intense emotion.

An exploration of the relationship between contained and infinite space is also evident in Naples c. 1942 (cat. 36) (Figure 3). A city he never visited, yet kept a detailed dossier on, Naples was ‘one of those distant cities […] of which Cornell dreamed’ (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 147). He also feared its destruction by World War II bombing (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 147). In this glazed wooden box Cornell’s vision of Naples becomes a spatial and temporal labyrinth created through an intricate interweaving of two and three dimensions. Our attention is initially drawn to the suspended string and cloth in the upper foreground. Placed in front of a photograph of a narrow Neapolitan street, string and cloth are transformed into a representation of a washing line by their visual association with the washing lines in the photograph. Meanwhile, a luggage label hangs from the string. The sharp shift in scale that the label creates, as it dangles into the wine glass beneath, draws attention to the boundaries between two and three dimensions, illusion and reality. The label acts as a bridge between the miniaturized, three-dimensional representation of a washing line, its photographic counterparts and the wine glass, a real object appropriated from the world of everyday utensils. Space and time suddenly feel compressed, as if the viewer can ricochet between the distant idea of a Neapolitan street and the concrete presence of the glass firmly existing in the present moment.

At the same time, a circular mirror and a seashell are propped up on either side of the wine glass. The shell refers to the Neapolitan Fanny Cerrito, one of Cornell’s favourite nineteenth-century Romantic ballerinas (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 147). Both circular mirror and seashell lean against the mirrors that form the sides of the box. Peering into these vertical mirrors, the viewer encounters a startlingly three-dimensional space, where the mirrors’ surfaces have miraculously fused the two-dimensional illusion of space in the photograph with the three-dimensional objects. The angle at which the mirrors are placed allows reflections to repeatedly bounce between them. We also catch a reflected glimpse of ourselves, looming like Alice in Wonderland, so that the Neapolitan world that opens up before us is both miniaturized and infinite.

As with other instances where Cornell uses mirrors to create an illusion of infinite space – for example, Beehive (1940–1948, cat. 38), and A Dressing Room for Gille (1939, cat. 22) – we feel as though we want to step into and lose ourselves within this unexpected, magical realm. These mirror spaces also seem reminiscent of Cornell’s interest in the ‘hypnagogic states between wakefulness and sleep’ (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 28) and his actual dreams, especially the ‘dream of wandering’ and its ‘expansive milieu of “the merveilleux”’, mentioned in his diary entries (Cornell in Caws 1993: 419; see also Hartigan 2006: 303).

However, at the very moment at which we feel beguiled by the mirror space, we are also conscious of the simple means by which the illusion has been created. We know we are looking at the commonplace effects that arise when mirrors face one another. By laying the constituent parts of the illusion bare, Cornell once again draws our attention to the boundaries between illusion and reality. We are simultaneously encouraged to suspend our disbelief, to actively choose to explore an imaginative, wondrous world, but at the same time to objectively observe what is happening and why. This provokes the questions: What is the nature of space? What is illusion? Where do we position ourselves in relation to reality and imagination?

This fusion of imagination and objective knowledge can also be found within Untitled (Celestial Navigation) (c. 1956–1958, cat. 67), which juxtaposes a sky chart and numerical data with, among other objects, a draw containing sand, shells and ball bearings. The scientific, imaginative and playful combine, and, as Sarah Lea describes, this box is ‘an analogy for the mapping of a changing physical universe: a project that points to the edges of human knowledge’ (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 217). Cornell seems to constantly ask us to both wonder and learn.

When I reach the end of the show, due to its circular layout, I am back at the beginning, where Gnir Rednow continues its loop. As I watch it one last time, I notice a young child playing in the gallery beneath the film. She has discovered a 50-cm boundary, demarcated by an inlaid line on the floor, between the wall and main gallery floor space. She turns this into her personal walkway and then finds it also contains round metal discs. Using these as markers she steps deliberately between them, sometimes pausing on one, or using it as a spot to change direction. Seeing her reminds me of the child’s eye view of the street in Cornell’s films, within the latter sections of A Legend for Fountains (Cornell, Burckhardt and Jordan 1957–1965) (Pigott 2013: 108–09), or the boys climbing a fountain in The Aviary (Cornell and Burckhardt 1954–1955), for example, versions of which were shown at the British Film Institute in conjunction with this show. It strikes me (and Pigott discusses related ideas) that the child’s inclination to not simply occupy the prescribed space in the centre of the Royal Academy’s gallery but to observe space, texture, rhythm and form, to explore her surroundings intuitively and physically, are among the qualities Cornell honed in his own wanderings through New York – the same skills that, coupled with his ‘vast sphere’ (Lea, Sharp and Hartigan 2015: 25) of cultural and scientific reference, he used to create the evocative juxtapositions in his work. I wonder whether Cornell perhaps also implies, through the ways in which his work affects the perception of the viewer, that adoption of this process of intuitive exploration might be a fruitful way to navigate one’s own way through life. It is this interaction between imagination, reality and space which makes Cornell’s work, and this show, endlessly intriguing.



Bourdon, David (1967), ‘Enigmatic bachelor of Utopia parkway’, Life, 15 December, p. 63.

Brakhage, Stan (1955), The Wonder Ring, USA.

Caws, Mary Ann (1993), Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters and Files, New York and London: Thames and Hudson.

Cornell, Joseph and Brakhage, Stan (1955–1960), Gnir Rednow, USA.

Cornell, Joseph and Burckhardt, Rudy (1954–1955), The Aviary, USA.

Cornell, Joseph, Burckhardt, Rudy and Jordan, Lawrence (1957–1965), A Legend for Fountains, USA.

Fowler, William (2015), ‘Joseph Cornell: White Magic Filmmaker 2’ introductory talk to film screening, British Film Institute, London, 3 September.

Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe (2006), Joseph Cornell Navigating the Imagination, Salem, New Haven and London: Peabody Essex Museum and Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Yale University Press.

Lea, Sarah and Hall-Patch, Phillip (2015), Making Places: Joseph Cornell’s Wanderlust Worlds and the Garden Bridge for London, ideas-matter-sphere, London, 2 September, Accessed 29 January 2016.

Lea, Sarah, Sharp, Jasper and Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe (2015), Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust, London: Royal Academy of Arts.

Pigott, Michael (2013), Joseph Cornell Versus Cinema, London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Contributor details

Alexandra Blum is a visual artist whose practice explores spatial perception and the urban environment, primarily through drawing. Her work can currently be seen at The Geffrye – Museum of the Home, London, and at Hackney Museum, London. Contact - E-mail: