Joseph Cornell plays in the shadows of the Surrealist movement

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Untitled (Soap Bubble Set, Latitude and Longitude), c. 1960, is one of the Joseph Cornell assemblages donated to the Fralin. Untitled (Soap Bubble Set, Latitude and Longitude), c. 1960, is one of the Joseph Cornell assemblages donated to the Fralin.

A rich and deeply satisfying show, “Joseph Cornell and Surrealism” at the Fralin Museum explores Cornell’s work in the context of the Surrealist movement of the 1930s and ’40s. Prior to seeing it, I had the common, yet incorrect impression, that Cornell was a hermit-like creature akin to Henry Darger who created his work in a self-imposed vacuum.

While it’s true Cornell lived most of his life in the modest home he shared with his mother and invalid brother in Queens, rarely leaving the city and never venturing beyond New England, Cornell was from a fine old New York family. Before his father died, which significantly altered the family fortunes, Cornell had enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Nyack, New York and attended Phillips Academy. Though he was painfully shy, he was an inveterate gallery goer and engaged with other artists in the Surrealist circle (André Breton, Max Ernst, and Marcel Duchamp, among others) who had made New York their home in the years leading up to the second World War.

Cornell worked with both collage and assemblage. In the former, two-dimensional materials are glued to a flat surface. Cornell’s assemblages include curios like the charming Bel Écho Gruyère, a round cheese container that holds the noisemaker from a moo box disguised as a wrapped wedge of cheese. When the box is turned upside down, it bleats. He is most famous for his shadow boxes featuring found objects in various arrangements under glass. These works evoke a cabinet of curiosities, or a shop window and also suggest specimens offered up for examination.

Given his personal history it’s no wonder Cornell was obsessed with childhood, the time when things had been so rosy for him. Nature, science, and fantasy also come into play, and the color blue. Mysterious and otherworldly, it adds a sense of romance and nostalgia. Many of his boxes have blue glass and his film, Rose Hobart, was projected through a blue lens.

“Hölderlin Object” is a rhapsodic homage to the Romantic poet, Friedrich Hölderlin using this hue. Here, the blue glass “imbues it with a sense of what the Germans would call Sehnsucht, a kind of longing,” said Fralin director Bruce Boucher. Cornell’s boxes have always reminded me a bit of reliquaries and this seems particularly the case with the oak leaf, a symbol of majesty, strength, and endurance, and the sumptuously bound object that may or may not be a volume of Hölderlin’s work, made precious by its containment within an elegant, inlaid wood box.

My favorite boxes are “Untitled (Game),” whose austere beauty seems to harken back to early American games and the two Dovecotes that presage Donald Judd. One can clearly see Cornell’s influence rippling through contemporary art. Unfortunately, for every one like these exemplaries, there are a dozen Cornell boxes that have inspired legions of soulless copycat assemblages and even a work like Edward Kienholz’s dreary (and creepy) “The Wait.”

While they’re not my favorite, there’s something so poignant about the boxes referencing French hotels. I imagine Cornell, too paralyzed by various personal issues to travel, toiling away in his basement workroom all the while thinking about the France he dearly loved but would never see while constructing “Grande Hôtel de la Boule d’Or” and “Hôtel de L’Étoile.”

Cornell’s filmmaking is a revelation. The lush and enigmatic Rose Hobart is shown together with Duchamp’s Anémic Cinéma and Man Ray’s L’Étoile de Mer recreating a 1936 screening of the same three at the Levy Gallery. Cornell’s is a montage created from the 1931 film East of Borneo and is named for the female lead, the long forgotten Hobart, who must have been one of those actresses Cornell was known to worship from afar.

In “Monsieur Phot,” a film scenario collage in black and red paper with stereoscope photographs, one is struck by Cornell’s innate eye for design. And it’s not surprising that he made extra cash designing covers and feature layouts for Harper’s Bazaar, View, Dance Index, and other magazines.

One of the great delights of the show is the small gems by prominent Surrealists on display. There are two gorgeous and wonderfully restrained Dalis, “Solitude” and “Paranoiac-Astral Image,” a splendid Max Ernst, “Red Sun and Forest,” and Duchamp’s enchanting and inspired miniature collection of his most famous works, “From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rose Sélavy (Box in a Valise)” on which Cornell collaborated as the box fabricator.

Despite the obvious cross-pollination going on between Cornell and the Surrealists, he made a point of separating himself from them, famously saying that they practiced black magic, while he practiced white magic. Supposedly their erotic bent was a turn-off for the reticent Cornell. But more to the point, his art is really a Surrealist-Dada hybrid. He cherry-picked what he wanted from each movement, adding his own unique slant to the mix. While I am not wild about the fussy, Victoriana-tinged pieces that have been copied ad nauseum, others are so striking and moving it’s hard not to fall under their spell. Cornell brilliantly combined the naïve with the sophisticated, offering fleeting glimpses of meaning that only add to the work’s allure.

“Joseph Cornell and Surrealism” is a collaboration between the Fralin, which owns six Cornell boxes and 14 collages, the majority of which were donated by the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon where it was exhibited during the fall/winter.

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