December 23 1903 ~ December 29 1972
Joseph Cornell was born on Christmas Eve in 1903 – which makes him an Edwardian, even if his ‘assemblage’ shadow box designs were created long after that era in time; with work that was to herald the dawn of Minimalist, Pop and installation art.
Born in New York, Cornell’s parents were both descended from prominent Dutch families. His father was a well-to-do designer and seller of textiles, raising Joseph and three siblings in relative comfort until he died in 1917, when the family were left in poverty.
For the rest of his life Cornell remained living at home with his mother, helping to care for a brother who suffered from cerebral palsy. They finally relocated to the working-class area of Flushing, New York – from where Cornell seldom travelled except to seek inspiration in Manhattan’s antique bookshops and dime stores, buying up the small objects and ephemera that he used to create his assembled works, mostly in boxes framed with glass.
Even if he never spread his wings to travel in his real life, the unique and spellbinding worlds of art created in the family's basement reflected an internal obsession with exploration, astronomy, literature, cinema, ballet and ornithology.
There might be bits of machinery, such as those in the Medici Slot Machines that were made to be handled and moved about.
There might be old photographs of ballerinas, or else Victorian bric a brac, or the cut out images of birds featured in his Aviary boxes – all of which echoed the Surrealist movement, but with a great sense of familiar nostalgia, harking back to a distant and eccentric past, redolent of the stuffed creatures that were once displayed inside glass domes in Victorian and Edwardian homes.
Said to be somewhat eccentric, bashful and reclusive, Cornell enjoyed the company of women far more than he did other men. However, he existed in a fantasy world when it came to his romantic life, being prone to fall in love with those who were quite unattainable – such as beautiful ballerinas, or the actress, Lauren Baccall.
A gift he once sent to the star, his Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Baccall (created in 1946 and inspired by the film To Have and Have Not) was sold at Christies auction house in 2014 when it fetched $5.3 million.
And now, the Royal Academy in London is about to feature some of his work in a brand new exhibition which is entitled Wanderlust. The exhibition opens on July 4 2015, and will run until September.