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Oddities as art: "Palace”, 1943, by Joseph Cornell (credit: The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015)

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was a very strange artist and a very strange man. He was an innocent who was also possessed of something of the creepiness of Frederick Clegg, John Fowles’s The Collector; he was a self-taught latecomer who was lauded by the likes of Duchamp, De Kooning and Warhol; a world traveller who never left New York State; and a pioneer in the genres of assemblage and installation that are so prevalent today. He is a revered figure in the history of 20th-century art but nonetheless remains outside the mainstream, never quite fitting one movement or another — a late Symbolist or a bit of a Surrealist perhaps, a folk artist or a proto Pop Artist maybe.

Cornell didn’t paint or draw but made collages and, above all, glass-fronted boxes — “shadow boxes” — filled with found objects and images cut from magazines. The subjects contained in these little bric-a-brac mises-en-scènes range from the stars and the Italian Renaissance to birds and ballet dancers. Initially dismissed (not least by some of his crushes — the ballerinas and Hollywood leading ladies such as Lauren Bacall he sent them to as gifts of adoration) they can also be seen as shrines and reliquaries that are containers of memory and dream, fantasy and poetry.

Eighty of his works — boxes and collages (both paper versions and the films he spliced together from random commercial footage) — are on display in Wanderlust at the Royal Academy (July 4 to September 27), the first retrospective of his work here since the Whitechapel show of 1981. Cornell was said to have spent every single night of his adult life under his own roof; so the title refers to the imaginary travelling to different continents, solar systems and centuries that he sublimated in his boxes. It refers too to his expeditions around New York, scouring junk shops and second-hand bookshops for ephemera to add to his collection.

He would store these oddities in stacks of boxes in the basement of the house on the inaptly-named Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, that he shared with his long-widowed mother and a brother with cerebral palsy. He was a carer before he was an artist and would work on his boxes after the household had gone to bed, with Satie and Debussy playing on the gramophone, arranging his compositions of mundane objects, from metal springs to clay pipes and coins, and turning them into the “what might have beens” of his own restricted life. It is a poetic sign of his arrested development (Cornell had to support his family from the age of 14 when his father died) that among his collection were some of the original drawings for Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

Initially, inspired by having seen some of Max Ernst’s collages in a gallery, Cornell worked entirely for his own satisfaction but he was then picked up as an American Surrealist (a claim he rejected) and from the mid-1930s exhibited in his own right. He tended to make his boxes in series — the Museum series, the Soap Bubble sets, the Observatory series and the Aviary boxes full of brightly coloured cut-out birds against a white background.

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