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Joseph Cornell Seven : Boxes

The American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) is known as the "box artist." In 1931 he became inspired by the Surrealist art of Ernst, Dali and others and soon began creating collage works of his own, before switching to the box compositions that he would continue creating for the rest of his life. In these works he made boxes of about the size that could be held easily in both arms and filled them with a variety of objects that he fancied. For Cornell these were both "treasure boxes" and showcases in which he could display his own unique worldview.

In the work Untitled (Parrot and Butterfly Habitat), butterfly and moth specimens that he found in specialty shops play together with others cut out of bug encyclopedias, while beside them parrots look on. This little world has the orderliness of a museum display case. Seen from another perspective, however, the parrots and butterflies that inhabit this box, with its metal divider and a butterfly net hung on the wall, may also be manifestations of Cornell’s longing for exotic worlds he would never see. Forced to go to work at a young age to support his mother and younger brothers, Cornell would never set foot out of his native New York.


Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Parrot & Butterfly Habitat), c. 1948, 50.0 x 34.6 x 16.4cm
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, New York & SPDA, Tokyo, 2007

In Untitled (Le Piano), a slightly smaller box is lined throughout with sheet music, creating a work that shows Cornell’s love of music. From the music scores that he probably bought at the used book stores of Manhattan he chose a piano adaptation of a 19th century European romantic opera, and if you follow the notes you can perhaps hear the elegant intonations of its music. What’s more, this work is also designed to actually provide music for the ears as well. Inside the lower half of the box enclosed behind blue glass is a music box that plays Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major (K. 545) when you wind the key at the back of the box.


Joseph Cornell, Untitled(Le Piano), ca.1947-1948, 28.3 x 21.3 x 12.1cm
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, New York & SPDA, Tokyo, 2007

The things Cornell put in his boxes are not only collector’s items like bug specimens and rare musical scores but also everyday items like cork balls and cordial glasses of the kind sold at the local variety store. When placed in his boxes, these items took on symbolic meanings beyond their inherent utilitarian significance. For example, the white cork balls set to roll on the two metal rods in Celestial Navigation by Birds, can not only be seen simply as toys but also as symbolic images, such as celestial bodies revolving in the heavens or innocent-spirited migratory birds in flight. Also, if you see the blue of the box interior as the blue of the sea instead of a blue sky, we can imagine the ceramic pipe, the shells and the broken piece of board with bent nails in it to be the remains of a wrecked ship that sunk to the sea floor long ago. And it is surely because these works are in the microcosm of a box that we feel this kind of expansiveness over time and space.


Joseph Cornell, Celestial Navigation by Birds, ca.1961, 30.2 x 45.8 x 9.6cm
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, New York & SPDA, Tokyo, 2007

Related Works in the Collection

  • Joseph Cornell, Untitled (La Bella [Parmigianino]), ca.1950-56
  • Joseph Cornell, Dovecort: Americana, early 1950’s
  • Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Hotel Etoile), ca.1956
  • Joseph Cornell, Hotel de la Mer (Sand Fountain), ca.1958-1959
  • Museum