Surrealism is the magical surprise of finding a lion in a wardrobe, where you were ‘sure’ of finding shirts. Frida Kahlo Following World War I, the aftermath and devastation in Europe gave birth to a new art and literature movement: Surrealism. The principles of this movement employ fanciful and outlandish imagery and effects by means of using strange juxtapositions and groupings. When the movement crosses the ocean to America, a young collector of memorabilia and budding artist in Queens, New York: Joseph Cornell identifies with this dream-like quality in artistry and begins to employ it in his work. Focusing on child’s whimsey and scientific study as subject matter, he utilizes surreal techniques to create unique and playful collages. He begins to combine his quirky collage work with assemblage and sculpture techniques to create a composition where the viewer feels like they’re looking through a window into a dream world, called a shadow box. Although unschooled in the arts, Joseph Cornell creates masterful compositions in the form of shadow boxes that portray the juxtaposition and magic of surrealism, while engaging and challenging the viewer to look further.
Joseph Cornell was born on Christmas Eve, 1903 to parents Joseph and Helen Cornell in Nyack, New York. The family lived a comfortable life, with parents actively participating in the local community theatre group. Shortly after his birth, his younger brother Robert is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Only a few short years later Cornell now 13 years old loses his father to leukemia, leaving the family with massive depts. His mother sells the house and moves the family to a much smaller home to make ends meet. She sends Joseph to a private academy in Massachusetts, where he begins to exhibit nervous tendencies and stomach issues. During Christmas break with family he reveals to his sister Betty his frequent feelings of fear and anxiety, particularly when considering infinite space when studying astronomy. As a shy young man, he finds comfort in studying the sciences and French literature. Finding solace at home caring for his mother and younger brother, Cornell avoids travel, instead completing much of his research at museums, local shops, books stores and the theatres in the city. He also starts to practice as a Christian Scientist, looking for ways to cope with and cure his constant stomach ailments and anxiety. He begins collecting 19th century memorabilia, images and photographs of advertisements, birds, butterflies, opera singers and actresses amongst many other subjects, plus massive volumes of books, categorizing and filing each. He also takes endless notes, creating volumes of journals. (Waldman 15-17) He discovers the work of Max Ernst: La Femme 100 Têtes. This collection of colleges inspires Cornell, giving him a new artistic channel to use huge collection of clipped art and photos. Not only does this new medium justify his...