Walking into the Wanderlust exhibition is like entering an old curiosity shop full of resplendent, yet commonplace memorabilia. The things we recognise from the world around us have been transformed into ideas, memories, fantasies & dreams. Each room is filled with creations made from everyday items that in Cornell’s hands have taken on a magical form and curious surreal meaning. The works are intricate. The detail and precision of arrangement, extraordinary, which makes this an extremely gratifying exhibition to see.
Born in 1903 in New York, Cornell did not draw, paint or sculpt and declined opportunities to train in traditional artistic methods. Neither did he travel, preferring instead to be an “armchair voyager”. Yet, his knowledge of the world was extraordinary and the imagery of travel permeates his works.
Cornell is best known for his boxed assemblages of objects. These usually take the form of simple shadow boxes with a glass pane in which he arranged eclectic fragments of photographs or objects he collected on his foraging expeditions around New York. Many of his boxes, such as the famous Medici Slot Machine boxes and the Museum series (1949), are interactive and were meant to be handled. Although we are denied this pleasure today, it is easy to imagine the joy of handling such objects.
As well as his remarkable boxes, Cornell made assemblages, collages, films and enigmatic objects small enough to fit in the palm
of your hand. In his work he mixed everything together: high-brow art and low-brow culture; the ancient and modern world; science, art and spirituality. His work followed no particular discipline and he never associated himself with any artistic movement. Although through his work, he had links with Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Minimalism and was admired by many artists from these movements. Today his influence is everywhere and you don’t need to have studied art to see where Damian Hirst got some of his ideas. In fact, Cornell’s art has never been more relevant and scores of modern artists, poets and musicians draw inspiration from this unique American artist.
Put simply the exhibition is a treasure trove of objects and ideas. Through each work one is transported into another world and given the rare privilege of looking at the world through the fascinating lens of an amazing artist.
The Joseph Cornell Wanderlust exhibition is on at The Royal Academy of the Arts in London until 27th September 2015, after which it moves to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.