Had Joseph Cornell been alive today, what box would he have put together?

by Rashmee

Posted on January 24, 2019



Cornell’s box, titled L’Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle

So here’s my question and it’s do with the American artist Joseph Cornell (1903–1972):

Had Joseph Cornell been alive today, what box would he have put together? I ask because Cornell was of his time in rethinking the familiar and finding new meaning.

For those not au fait with Cornell’s art, he is famous for his glass-fronted shadow boxes, which laid bare an eccentric infatuations with artists and artistes, dead or distant, in different centuries and countries. And yet, he was on the nose, not dreadfully, but beautifully.

Consider Cornell’s titled L’Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle’ a box he constructed in 1940.

It shows, as Charles Simic’s ekphrastic prose poem puts it:

“Doll’s forearm, loose red sand, wood ball, German coin, several glass and mirror fragments, 12 cork-stopped bottles, cutout sphinx head, yellow filaments, 2 intertwined paper spirals, cut-out of Cleo de Merode’s head, cutout of camels and men, loose yellow sand, 6 pearl beads, glass tube with residue of dried green liquid, crumpled tulle, rhinestones, pearl beads, sequins, metal chain, metal and glass fragments, threaded needle, red wood disc, bone and frosted glass fragments, blue celluloid, clear glass crystals, rock specimen, 7 balls, plastic rose petals, three miniature tin spoons for a doll’s house.”

Simic concludes as follows: “Cleo de Merode, by the way, was a famous ballerina and femme fatale of the 1890s.”

At one go, Cornell is clearly addressing several hundred years of history and geographical references.

The bottle format engages the pharmacy tradition, the subtitle refers to natural history and the tradition of the museum. He is also drawing upon Napoleon’s quest to conquer Egypt by means of the marbled papers and the typeface inside the lid because they remind us of ‘Description de l’Egypt’, the 20-volume series produced by scientists who accompanied Napoleon and studied the flora, fauna, landscape, population and arts of Egypt. It was one of the first modern attempts at a largescale scientific research expedition. The title of the box refers to the 19thcentury dancer, Cleo, and her name evokes Cleopatra and the mysteries surrounding Egypt. Furthermore, Cleo de Merode apparently fascinated King Leopold II of Belgium, which again could reference European colonisation, particularly the King’s brutality in the Congo.

So, let me return to my question: Had Joseph Cornell been alive today, what box would he have put together?

First, I imagined the following, in light of nationalism, populism, climate change and the general angst of this, the second decade of the 21st century :

  • Screenshot of a tweet referring to the Nazis
  • A mobile phone, its glass shattered
  • A plastic straw
  • A butterfly’s wing
  • A drawing of a glass of water

Then I realised, Cornell didn’t re-create his times in his boxed juxtapositions of found objects. He seemed more interested in reflecting on the past, perhaps the resonant past, ie, past events and objects that affected his day.

So, perhaps Cornell might have put in a box the following?

  • a 45 rpm record (something iconic from the 1950s)
  • a tupperware box
  • inside the Tupperware box, a cut-out of a butterfly
  • a page from Life magazine
  • a toy car (perhaps the iconic Mercedes Gullwing)pt. Furthermore, Cleo de Merode apparently fascinated King Leopold II of Belgium, which again could reference European colonisation, particularly the King’s brutality in the Congo.

So, let me return to my question: Had Joseph Cornell been alive today, what box would he have put together?

First, I imagined the following, in light of nationalism, populism, climate change and general angst of this, the second decade of the 21st century :

  • Screenshot of a tweet referring to the Nazis
  • A mobile phone, its glass shattered
  • A plastic straw
  • A butterfly’s wing
  • A drawing of a glass of water

Then I realised, Cornell didn’t re-create his times in his boxed juxtapositions of found objects. He seemed more interested in reflecting on the past, perhaps the resonant past, ie, past events and objects that affected his day.

So, perhaps Cornell might have put in a box the following?

  • a 45 rpm record (something iconic from the 1950s)
  • a tupperware box
  • inside the Tupperware box, a cut-out of a butterfly
  • a page from Life magazine
  • a toy car (perhaps the iconic Mercedes Gullwing)

Rashmee has lived and worked in several countries in the past decade, including Afghanistan, India, Haiti, Tunisia, the UAE, US and UK

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