Editor's note: The following essay was written in conjunction with the exhibition Andromeda Hotel: The Art of Joseph Cornell, on exhibit at the Katonah Museum of Art from June 25 through September 17, 2006. The essay was reprinted on June 26, 2006 in Resource Library with the permission of the author and the Katonah Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Katonah Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

 

Andromeda Hotel: The Art of Joseph Cornell

by Therese Lichtenstein

 



 

 

A safe haven, a nook, a place out of sight in which to snuggle. Every dreamer crawls into his corner. Like an escapee, he thinks only of hiding and disappearing. In every cranny in the world someone has burrowed to seek solace. From the crack in the wall he glimpses the world from which he is absent.

The pursuers enter the hotel room and there is no one there. The one they are looking for hasn't been born yet, or he has been dead for a hundred years. The sunlight falling through the open window knows that. Soon they're gone and the room is again empty like the morning sky. Within that single instant, "Centuries of June," as Emily Dickinson said.

-- Charles Simic, "Centuries of June," Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell

 

 

A devoted collector and archivist, Joseph Cornell (l903-l972) had an encyclopedic knowledge of art, science, the cinema, ballet, literature, theatre, music, and history. All of these interests came together in the fantastic assemblages he produced between the 1930s and the l960s. By combining bits and pieces from nature, popular culture, and mass media and placing them in small boxes (like so many specimens on display), Cornell not only preserved almost forgotten objects and fading icons but gave them new life. In his work the anonymity of the mass produced becomes personal and the commonplace is made magical. It captures a child's sense of wonder. As viewers look into Cornell's small, intimate, poetic, and theatrical "dioramas," they experience the enchantment and mystery of the everyday. He venerates, commemorates, and memorializes natural and cultural objects in order to, in his own words, "transcend ... the dust heap & ruthlessness of time." [1]

Many of Cornell's quiet yet emotionally charged works look like cherished souvenirs, permeated by a sense of wistful longing, muted joy, and poignant loss. His contradictory expressions ­ he was a fervent romantic and urgent realist ­ come out of his heightened sense of mortality and time passing, which creates a strong nostalgia for the anticipated loss of the present. The metaphorical journeys and kaleidoscopic meanings in Cornell's work are rooted in this deep sense of nostalgia.

Celestial and earthly travels come together in many of his hotel boxes (1950s), which are frequently named after nineteenth-century French hotels and heavenly constellations. Hotels are comforting, anonymous, and temporary in-between places that accumulate invisible memories. They represent travel, transience, freedom, and mobility. By collaging nineteenth-century hotel labels with old-fashioned typeface, astronomical charts, and Baedeker maps, Cornell figuratively travels to distant places. In Untitled (Andromeda Hotel) (pl. 00), for example, the words "Andromeda Hotel" are pasted across the back and side walls of an austere, almost vacant white interior. Like many of Cornell's boxes, this one is painted and baked to resemble an aged relic. A single white column is placed on the left side of a shallow stage. A cutout reproduction of the figure of Andromeda and an approaching sea monster are collaged across a portion of the back and side walls. Andromeda's left arm, placed next to a dangling chain that hangs from a metal ring on a horizontal pole above her, extends toward a vertical window that reveals a deep blue starry night (a reference to her place as a constellation in the sky).[2]

Her right arm remains chained. She is alone, suspended between imprisonment and freedom. In the ancient myth, Cassiopeia claimed that her daughter Andromeda (the princess of Ethiopia) was more beautiful than the Nereids (the sea nymphs). In order to avenge Cassiopeia's boast, Neptune sent a sea monster to ravage the Ethiopian coast where Andromeda was chained to a rock. She was eventually rescued by Perseus, who killed the monster, freed her, and then married her. The story of the hero Perseus saving the lovely young Andromeda, appealed to Cornell, who was captivated by heroic Romantic myths and obsessed by beautiful and charismatic young women.[3]

The way in which the natural and celestial worlds of science and the theatrical worlds of the stage and cinema converge in Cornell's work has much in common with the Surrealist impulse to juxtapose seemingly disparate images and objects to form a "new reality." And like the Surrealist object, Cornell's work integrates fantasy, dream, and reality, exposing unconscious desires and drives, liberated from psychic repression. Many of his boxes include celestial maps, reproductions of constellations, and other objects that represent moons, stars, and suns. These boxes unite science, fantasy, the infinite, and the spiritual- journeying between the scientific and poetic/spiritual worlds, where the rational and irrational collide. As Lynda Roscoe Hartigan observes, by the mid-1930s, Cornell "had launched into a lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between science and imagination, knowledge and wonder." [4]

At the age of twenty-five, Cornell became a Christian Scientist, which he remained for the rest of his life. In a diary entry from December 9, 1948, he records "a persistent tenseness relieved fully for a moment with the realization of the significance of Christian Science in its supreme power to meet any human need."[5] He followed the spiritual and religious writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the nineteenth-century American founder of the movement. According to Richard Vine, "Mary Baker Eddy, steeped in traditional Christian teachings, carried with her into her new 'science' the monotheistic principle of a single all-good all-knowing and all-powerful God -- along with the notion of a time-free "eternity" which is coextensive with the Divine."[6] She based her movement on the medieval concept that the planets and stars had souls, which moved them, and on the writings of the scientist Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who believed that the planets traveled in elliptical paths around the sun. [7]

 

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