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Joseph Cornell, introduction to the Objects by Joseph Cornell exhibition at Copley Galleries, Los Angeles, September 1948 as quoted in Diane Waldman, "Joseph Cornell," in Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Joseph Cornell, 1967, p. 12
A devotee of celestial magic and astral realms, Joseph Cornell was profoundly enraptured by the mystery of constellations. Through works such as Untitled (Die Sternen-Welt), we see an artist grappling with the grandeur of the universe and endeavoring to make sense of his own experience through a poetic interpretation of the scientific world. Executed circa 1950, Untitled (Die Sternen-Welt) is a captivating and ethereal habitat, filled with images and objects collected by the enigmatic Joseph Cornell in his wanderings around New York City, and later rearranged into unique tableaux in his studio at home in Utopia Parkway, Queens. A frequent visitor to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of National History in New York and a voracious reader of astronomy, Cornell reverentially studied the constellations as one of the most pivotal inventions of mankind. Suffused with an enigmatic mystique that engages Cornell’s serious examination of the scientific world through his enchanted childlike imagination, the intricate composition of Untitled (Die Sternen-Welt) insinuates a world of extraterrestrial wonder.
With its astronomical map punctuated by five marble-filled glasses, Untitled (Die Sternen-Welt) offers Cornell’s romantic alternative to the heroic painterly abstractions of post-war art. In the present work, Cornell unveils a seductive glimpse into the subtle and cryptic imagery at play in his inner world. An amateur scientist, Cornell envisioned both the natural and supernatural realms as conduits to the human psyche, drawing private associations and novel juxtapositions that reveal the mind’s fantasies and fears. The word “constellation” itself carried an allegorical meaning for Cornell, who used the term to characterize his own working process. Like an astronomer, Cornell was incessantly charting patterns, relationships, and connections between seemingly disparate clusters of objects. As such, the tokens he gathered to fill his boxes were often foreign and obscure, yet he studied them as rarefied objects similar to how one might study distant planets with a fervent sense of metaphysical intrigue. Further elaborating on the symbolic meaning of constellations, Fairfield Porter compared a box by Cornell to that of a ship’s cabin, writing, “...the view out the window is the stars, [and] the constellations, as abstractions of the stars, are constructions of the human spirit” (Fairfield Porter in Dawn Ades, “The Transcendental Surrealism of Joseph Cornell,” in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Joseph Cornell, 1980 - 1981, p. 32).
Untitled (Die Sternen-Welt) is replete with Surrealist fantasy, evoking a fanciful vision of the cosmos that is intrinsically linked to the iconography of Magritte and Dali. Consistent with André Breton’s theory that a Surrealist painting should be a portal through which one taps into the subconscious, Cornell constructs each box as a looking glass into the mystical musings of the inner landscape. If the present work indeed reflects Cornell’s philosophical meditations, it reveals an artist interested in the whimsical freedom and dream-like escape of the child’s imagination. Suggestive of a child’s diorama and exuding an element of naive play, Untitled (Die Sternen-Welt) presents colored marbles and tiny drawers filled with secret contents as if poised for a game. Intimate, delicate, and utterly mysterious, Untitled (Die Sternen-Welt) magnificently embodies Marcel Jean’s description of Cornell’s practice in 1959: “His ‘crystal cages,’ guardians of clear, urgent dreams, are made in the image of a solitary man who would like to be unapproachable and yet is tormented by a desire to communicate with his fellow men. Between his hands, small worlds spring up unceasingly, full of reality and life” (Marcel Jean and Arpad Mezei, The History of Surrealist Painting, New York 1960, p. 317).
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