Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust at the Royal Academy

Cathy Lomax takes her Cornell with a side order of Stezaker and Bracewell.

Still from Angel (Joseph Cornell and  Rudy Burckhardt, 1953)

I find Joseph Cornell’s fan-like obsessions with film and ballet stars and his collecting and ordering of found objects fascinating and inspiring. I haven’t seen much of his work in the flesh, so a retrospective at the Royal Academy was an exciting prospect. Before going in to see the exhibition I listened to an ‘in conversation’ between the writer Michael Bracewell, a Cornell dissenter who finds his work ‘morbid and dotty’ and the artist John Stezaker, a Cornell admirer.

Stezaker, who is best known for his collaged images of films and film stars, first saw Cornell’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1981, when he was trying to find a way to use found imagery in his own work. He liked the way that Cornell didn’t put imagery in ‘inverted commas’ and thus avoided ‘the knowing irony of pop.’ This is something that also draws me to Cornell – you can sense the connection he has with his materials and imagery. Cornell’s gaze, said Stezaker, is aligned with that of a painter, Rembrandt for instance, rather than the cold glare of the pop artist, because there is a similarity in the occluded narrative, ‘we can guess but will never know’.

Bracewell noted that both Cornell and Stezaker deal with time, but Stezaker is more incisive and removes himself from his work, while Cornell seems like a ‘character out of fiction’, which gets in the way. For Bracewell, Cornell’s work seems to mimic archaic amusements and has the quality of ‘entertainment’. Stezaker disagreed, ‘entertainment’, he said, ‘implies a mobility of image, Cornell takes from the flow and flux and stills the image; he stills time. His work Rose Hobart anticipated so many things in cinema. Through his doubling and recycling of imagery she becomes neurotic and develops an uncanny quality.’

Cornell sacrificed ordinary life to live through the image, ‘this was the real for him’ said Stezaker. Cornell didn’t want to meet the people he made work about, they had to be removed, but he loved them deeply, even if they were dead. In his own work Stezaker also feels a relationship to the fictional beings he manipulates, the impersonal publicity shots ‘become personal.’ He is however, unlike Cornell, uninterested in the life of the film or star, he likes to ‘forget the origins’.

Still from Angel (Joseph Cornell and  Rudy Burckhardt, 1953)
Still from Angel (Joseph Cornell and  Rudy Burckhardt, 1953)

With these ideas in my mind I wandered off to see the exhibition. My first feeling amongst the tightly packed exhibits and low ceilings was claustrophobia, which might have created an atmosphere akin to entering into Cornell’s world of enclosed boxes. However the presentation had an un-Cornell-like blandness, with the now delicate artworks, by necessity, entombed within acres of glass, a remove that made the work feel distant and like the staging itself, a little uninteresting. This showroom-like blankness neutered the lovingly crafted, artisan quality of Cornell’s work. The one piece that stood out was a projection of Cornell’s three-minute film Angel (1957) made in collaboration with Rudy Burckhardt. Liberated from a glass box, its depiction of a cemetery in flickering, period colours brought alive the past in a way that the stifled, cased works failed to do.

Within the blandness there were of course high points – I liked the works about ballet and Russia, which had some magic and spun me off momentarily into a dreamy Karen Kilimnik fangirl world. I also liked the numerous, precisely cut out, magazine page circles (Untitled, 1952), which were fanned out inside their glass fronted case, and the familiar bird shadow boxes and Medici Slot Machines were good to see in person.

Joseph Cornell, Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943

Earlier Stezaker had described turning over one of his own cut outs and preferring the reverse. This ‘cutting blind’ opened things up for him and the idea of working blind became a powerful motif – ‘the moment you have a blindfold an interior world is created.’ This staging of Cornell unfortunately has the opposite effect; the mystery has been removed. The exhibition lighting, although dimmed, is too uniform and takes away the dark corners, the boxes encased in glass boxes eliminate the possibility of touch; it is all too clean and flat. I wanted darkness, with twinkling works appearing like glittering sequins. And where were Rose Hobart, Lauren Bacall, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo and Jennifer Jones? I wanted to enter into Cornell's world of glamorous film stars and beautiful dancers. Bracewell would disapprove but I wanted more of Cornell’s dotty personality. I left feeling a little deflated.

This disappointment in seeing is of course not the artist’s fault. Recently it occurred to me that I often prefer the idea of what an artist does to the work itself. When we read and hear so much about an artwork, film or song it is hard for the actual encounter to live up to the hype. More often it is the chance first discovery rather than the anticipated treat that transcends expectation and shines through with the aura of authenticity. I still love Cornell, I enjoyed seeing his work and have even been again, but I didn’t feel the presence of Cornell and that was disappointing.

Cathy Lomax

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust is at The Royal Academy, London 

from 4 July — 27 September 2015

John Stezaker,  Mask XIV, 2006, postcard on paper on photo-etching on paper, 24x20cm

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