To enter the world of Joseph Cornell is to give yourself over to magic, poetry and secrets. It is like being lost in a Victorian attic. In among the cardboard parrots, cinematic toys, bottles of rare things, sealed boxes, photographs of ballerinas and astrological charts lingers a sensibility so rare and wondrous that you become entranced by this New York eccentric and his gentle, yet epoch-making art.
From the 1930s to the 1960s – he died in 1972 – Cornell explored the streets and junk shops, book stalls and newspaper racks of New York and hoarded its neglected stuff in the house he shared with his mother in Flushing, Queens. Even his address was slightly unreal: 3708 Utopia Parkway. From his collections of glass swans, Baedeker guidebooks, clay pipes, compasses and other suggestive souvenirs of the day before yesterday he invented a new kind of art.
Cornell is one of the most original artists of modern times, but he is not nearly as well known as he ought to be this side of the Atlantic. To state his achievement crudely, he was putting things in boxes and jars 50 years before Damien Hirst. To put it more subtly, Cornell took the art of collage pioneered by European modernists and made it romantic, expressive and, crucially, three-dimensional. His glass-fronted boxes containing birds and baubles lead directly to Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages of everyday stuff and therefore to the art of today. His bric-a-brac marvels are utterly contemporary. Students might make them now, and probably do.
But the radical modernity of Cornell is paradoxical, because this show reveals his passion for the past. He lived in a completely private world. The exhibition opens with his early collages of Victorian lithographs, which are obviously influenced by the collage novels of Max Ernst. But where Ernst’s art throbs with Freudian jokes, Cornell’s fantasy world has no sex in it all – not of a carnal kind, at least. He dreams about ballerinas and falls in love with women in Renaissance paintings – one of his most powerful display boxes contains Parmigianino’s painting of a 16th-century beauty who Cornell idolises as if she were a film star.
Cornell’s obsession with travel is this superb survey’s linking theme. This man who rarely ever left New York City and never crossed the ocean filled his art with mementoes of places that he only went to in his imagination. L’Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode is a jewellery box decorated with Egyptian art and containing sealed jars of coloured sand, sequins, fake pearls, needles (to evoke Cleopatra’s Needle) and other bits of tawdry dream stuff. Cornell’s art could even be called, in its entirety, a great American novel, for it is full of fictional characters like the child inventor Berenice, as well as real ones including King Ludwig II of Bavaria. But unlike Ernst or other European surrealists he does not have a political, psychoanalytical axe to grind. He verges on total whimsy. What raises Cornell from crazy hoarder to genius is the confident complexity of his allusive, multifaceted compositions. This makes his art endlessly rich.
This terrifically inventive artist also helped to create New York’s underground cinema scene, commissioning film-makers like Stan Brakhage and Rudy Burckhardt to shoot footage that he then edited using his personal collage methods. Cinema clearly haunted his dreams – after all, he lived in Hollywood’s golden age. His optical toys create surrealist moving images, while mirrors and montage animate his boxes with cinematic effects. Above all, his layered tableaux pay homage to the dreamlike sets of the Hollywood studios in the time of Judy Garland.
This is a first-rate exhibition of one of the 20th century’s most inspiring artists. Come to the dream arcade, and put 10 cents in Mr Cornell’s imaginoscope.