The Modern World During and After the World Wars, C. 1914–1960

American Art and the Influence of Europe

Who was Joseph Cornell?

Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) was a self-taught American artist and filmmaker from New York, who experimented with Surrealist collage and assemblage, and is most celebrated for his shadow boxes filled with meticulously curated objets trouves (found objects), which exhibit the artists’ eclectic and intellectual interests—from astronomy to arcades, from ballet to film. Cornell exhibited his work at the Surrealist Julien Levy Gallery, bringing distinction to the art of assemblage. Cornell’s boxes have been interpreted as constructivist, and have also been likened to visual poems, filled with surprising, often playful objects. For example, Homage to the Romantic Ballet (1942) holds six frosted glass cubes on a reflective plate above a blue, velvet surface. On the inside of the lid is an inscription—a lyrical telling of a carriage ride on a moonlit night. Another piece, Untitled (Hotel Eden) (1945) features a cutout of a tropical bird, white-washed wood, and paint-splattered newsprint, which creates a nostalgic image of paradise. Many of Cornell’s assemblages are on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.


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