Originally associated with the Surrealist painters and poets during the 1930s, Cornell pursed a unique artistic practice peripheral to—and resolutely independent of—the flourishing of the New York School during the late 1940s and 1950s. First initiated in 1942, Cornell’s seminal series of the Medici Slot Machines profoundly embody the artist’s uncanny ability to collect, distill, and gracefully interrelate seemingly disparate sources of inspiration within the spare but poetic tableau of his shadow boxes. While the artist created numerous boxes engaged with a variety of themes, the Medici works are particularly striking in their lyrical juxtaposition of sources from high and low source material. Named after the Medici’s of Florence, the family synonymous with European cultural enlightenment, the Medici Slot Machines are centered around four distinctive portraits of children by Italian Renaissance artists. In the present work, Cornell’s box frames the face and torso Pinturicchio’s Portrait of a Boy from 1500, held in the collection of the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. The gaze of Pinturichio’s portrait sitter, like that of the other Renaissance children Cornell has chosen to feature, is uncannily arresting, the solemn gaze imbued with a somber, almost melancholy maturity uncommon to such a youthful face. Smaller images of the boy line the box on either side of his visage, conjuring visions of an unspooling roll of film, frozen in place; describing another example from the series, Diane Waldman notes, “The complex play of imagery, sequentially strung out (or spliced) like a series of film clips, with the implication of movement in both time and space, reconstructs the history of the Renaissance prince and juxtaposes the images of his imaginary childhood…with current objects (marbles and jacks), so that the Renaissance child becomes contemporary. Certain objects are brought into the present through color, while others, monochromatic, recede into the past.” (Diane Waldman, Joseph Cornell, New York, 1977, p. 21)
The enchanting and irresistible draw of Untitled (Medici series, Pinturicchio Boy) lies, not in the somber subject of Pinturicchio’s portrait, but profound significance and associative relationships which govern Cornell’s particularized selection of objects and images with which to surround the central figure. The construction of the Medici Slot Machines is heavily influenced by Cornell’s childhood impressions of New York penny-arcade machines, elaborate contraptions synonymous, in the mind of the artist, with the enchantments of childhood. The structure of the present work, with the sequential stacking of imagery on either side and the lower compartment of whimsical baubles, conjures the notion of play and the childhood thrill of victoriously securing a prize. Remarking upon his Slot Machines, Cornell described them as something “that might be encountered in a penny arcade in a dream.” (Joseph Cornell cited in Deborah Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, Boston, 1997, p. 139) The sense of wonder that is central to Cornell’s oeuvre is made all the more potent here, as Cornell offers the viewer the ephemeral promise of entertainment through his art. As described by Deborah Solomon, “What makes the Medici Slot Machines so memorable is not merely the mixing of disparate elements, but the potent new meanings they acquire in the process. A Renaissance princeling is made to seem part of the present, while a candy machine in a subway station becomes the vaulted palace in which he resides.” (Ibid., p. 140) Standing before Untitled (Medici series, Pinturicchio Boy), the viewer is struck by the intimacy of Cornell’s project, the artist placing the fruit of his memories and private associations upon display. Each element, from the faded fragments of unknown maps to the scarred wooden block, has been painstakingly chosen by the artist; while the rational scheme behind the selection may remain elusive to the viewer, the promise of revelation keeps us looking, pressed against the glass.
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