Soap Bubble Set’s distinguished history begins with Cornell’s West Coast debut, in an exhibition organized by William Copley at his Beverly Hills gallery in September 1948. Francoise and Soulima Stravinsky moved to Los Angeles in the late 1940’s, joining his father Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera, who had arrived in Los Angeles in 1940. While his father continued to compose and conduct concerts, Soulima was pursuing a career as a composer and concert pianist.
It was in this rich environment of artists, writers, filmmakers, composers and musicians that Igor and Vera Stravinsky and Soulima and Francoise lived and socialized. Among their many friends, were Man Ray and Juliet Ray, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, artist and set designer Eugene Berman and his wife, the actress, Ona Munsen, and Aldous Huxley, who were frequent guests in their home. It was also within this fertile environment that the visionary collector William Copley decided to open an eponymous gallery in Beverly Hills to introduce the avant-garde and in particular Surrealism to art aficionados in Los Angeles and the West Coast.
Through Ona Munsen and Eugene Berman, Francoise Stravinsky was introduced to William Copley who asked her to help manage his new gallery. Francoise’s knowledge and enthusiasm for modern art and her fluency in both French and English were perfect for this outpost of the European avant-garde. Copley recalls: “The maestro himself used to come to the openings at the gallery and was as much an exhibit as the paintings were… Soulima, his son, was working at being a concert pianist and played Chopin and Scarlatti for us in a warm and Russian way.” (William N. Copley, Reflections on a Past Life, Cologne, 2014, n.p.).
In September 1948, the gallery debuted with an exhibition of works by René Magritte and was immediately followed by Joseph Cornell’s first West Coast exhibition: Objects by Joseph Cornell. In the catalogue notes for the show, Cornell wrote of the four works included from his Soap Bubble series: “Shadow boxes become poetic theatres or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime. The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets—a connotation of moon and tides – the association of water less subtle, as when driftwood pieces make up a proscenium to set off the dazzling white of sea-foam and billowy cloud crystalized in a pipe of fancy.” (Exh. Cat., Beverly Hills, Copley Galleries, Objects by Joseph Cornell, 1948, n.p.). Soap Bubble Set, featuring each of Cornell’s most characteristic elements, gives material form to this chimerical description.
William Copley recalled the Cornell exhibition and the unique installation they had created: “The Cornell show was something we had to believe in. It took courage to do it at that time, and we thought it was our courage that would win for us. We were ourselves infatuated with the pieces. They were dream toys, nostalgia from all our childhoods…We worked on a combination announcement/catalogue trying to keep ourselves in the mood of Cornell. All was to be royal blue and white. The lettering was randomly torn out from romantic typographies, like a ransom note. The catalogue looked like it had been done on a sewing machine or a type-writer. We rented a white high-wheel bicycle and draped it with blue velvet. We presented the boxes themselves on shelves in alcoves where bookshelves had existed in the gallery rooms. The result was quite beautiful and publicly disastrous as it proved forbidding and claustrophobic to anyone not already drunk on Cornell and we were the only such two in town. (William N. Copley, Reflections on a Past Life, Cologne, 2014, n.p.) It was from this exhibition that Francoise and Soulima Stravinsky acquired Soap Bubble Set and this illustrious work has remained in the Stravinsky family for 70 years.
Cornell was deeply moved and obsessed by many wide-ranging influences. Though he resisted the label of Surrealist for his own work, he admired the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, the experimental humor of Max Ernst, and the philosophical wit of René Magritte. His captivation with Europe’s past cultures, accessible only through books and his imagination, is emblematic of the curiosity that saturates his work. His attention wasn’t limited to earthly travel, however, as he dreamed of celestial navigation from childhood and was enthralled by the night sky and planets. The 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, his own backyard, went some way in satisfying his interest; he visited numerous times, fascinated by the futuristic advancements in science and immersive cultural experiences from around the globe. Inspired by his own Dutch ancestry, Cornell purchased a boxful of Dutch clay pipes from the Netherlands Pavilion, which he incorporated into his Soap Bubble Sets throughout his career. At the Masterpieces of Art Pavilion, he would have seen over 300 great works by masters such as Leonardo, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Vermeer, whose influence is keenly felt in Cornell’s boxes: their intimate scale recalls not only the world of childhood, in its containment and toy-sized proportions, but also the world of Vermeer’s interiors, with their cupboards, maps, fabrics, light and glass. It is indicative of Cornell’s genius that he could synthesize such disparate references as poetry and space technology, concert music and children’s play, Dutch masters and Surrealism, into such elegant and evocative constructions as Soap Bubble Set.
Richly symbolic and deeply deliberate, Cornell’s work can be understood as metaphorical models that balance visual allusions to these myriad inspirations with allegorical and connotative references. In Soap Bubble Set, Cornell arranged carefully chosen items against the backdrop of an antique lunar map, the roundness of the moon suggesting the titular spherical soap bubble. Following Edwin Hubble’s confirmation of cosmic expansion in 1929, the metaphor of a swelling soap bubble flourished in the popular press. For Cornell, this image would have reminded him of blowing bubbles as a child and the wonder of their creation. Thus, in his shadow boxes, these bubbles symbolized the relationship between science and imagination, as well as recalling the vocabulary of vanitas and the transience of worldly life. White Dutch clay pipes, his signature motif, add to the bubble-blowing reference and suggest the element air, while the fragments of driftwood and coral imply earth and water, grounding us in the natural world. A liqueur glass stands alone and empty, possibly symbolizing a vessel (like man) or time (like an hourglass). In the upper level of the box, a row of seven cylinders is suspended, possibly invoking the Copernican model of the solar system, in which six planets and the fixed stars orbit the Sun. Each item is carefully arranged, laid out symmetrically like scientific instruments in a lab. The dark protective lining adds to this impression, but there is also something of a night-sky setting in its deep velvet, or of an old-fashioned theatre curtain. Taken together, these elements inspire a poetic understanding of the universe, the infinity and grandeur of space reflected in the humble, earthly objects Cornell has so artfully assembled.
Among Cornell’s most recognizable motifs, the Dutch clay pipes carry many crucial associations for the artist. Given to autobiographical hinting, the collection he acquired from the World’s Fair was especially redolent of his own ancestry, as both his parents were of Dutch descent. Combining scientific principles with a playful pastime, the pipes further denoted for Cornell the relationship between knowledge and wonder. The iconography of the pipe also has a Surrealist pedigree, most notably featured in Magritte’s The Treachery of Images and Man Ray’s Ce qui manque à nous tous. More historically, pipes were often featured in the seventeenth-century vanitas tradition to connote the brevity of life on earth. Marked as it is by the inclusion of four such pipes rather than the usual one or two, the present work is exceptionally rare; their presence is clearly designed to bring these themes to the fore. Deliberately displayed within their own separate glass cases, they appear placed at the ready like utensils, or classified like specimen samples, producing a laboratory impression and emphasizing their role as a symbol of science. The four identical pipes are arranged as mirror images, visually linking the left and right sides of the box; their vertical orientation providing both a frame for the central elements and a circular path for the eye to follow, echoing the invisible soap bubble and creating an indelible link between the earthly items below and the heavenly “planets” above.
Closely associated with the soap bubble pipes are, of course, the soap bubbles themselves. An integral part of the same connection between science and imagination, the idea of the bubble takes on an added meaning from the artistic iconography of eighteenth-century European painting, in which children blowing bubbles represent the ephemerality of innocence. Defined by delicate fragility, their creation and destruction in the space of a moment serve as a reminder of matter’s impermanence, echoing the vanitas pipes. Further, the bubbles themselves are physically absent, yet their presence is still evoked by the spherical moon map, the shimmering surface of the glass, and the floating lanterns; this paradoxical state reflects Cornell’s abiding fascination with dualities and characterizes the greatest examples of his work.
As Cornell wrote in his statement for Copley’s catalogue, he associated the soap bubble with the movements of the cosmos: “The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets— a connotation of moon and tides…” (Exh. Cat., Beverly Hills, Copley Galleries, Objects by Joseph Cornell, 1948, n.p.) The inclusion of the moon chart in the present work forms a natural continuation of this cosmic reverie. Soap Bubble Set is one of at least five works of comparatively large scale in which the dominant motif is a Nineteenth-Century cartographic print of the moon, its scale and repetition underscoring its importance within his praxis. The mapped and charted surface of this celestial body metaphorically imposes order upon the unknown, and parallels the scientific impression created by the taxonomically displayed pipes. For Cornell, the contemplation of the cosmos was akin to the enjoyment of an opera or a ballet, just as the profusion of stars in the sky evoked the scattering of breadcrumbs for birds on the ground. The great and the small, the distant and the near, the spiritual and the material, all hold hidden affinities in his work, their duality echoed in his predilection for pairs and mirror images.
One such couple in Soap Bubble Set is that of the wood and coral at the base of the box. As several scholars have noted of Cornell’s work, these elements both carry Eucharistic associations. Another interpretation considers the objects’ origins, revealing them as synecdochal iterations of earth and ocean, grounding us in the natural world. Sustained, respectively, by air and water, the two fragments also echo the elements that compose the nominal bubbles, giving formal presence to that absent subject. Further, the weather-worn and pitted surfaces of each reflect the charted texture of the background moon, drawing a parallel between the cosmos, the earth, and the oceanic abyss. Painted white, the flotsam and jetsam also mirror the seven suspended white cylinders, visually tying the upper and lower regions of the box and thus, the earth and the heavens.
Between this ground and sky, placed at the very center of the composition, is a single empty cordial glass. Delicate, round and reflective, it, like the other items, gestures at the otherwise absent soap bubbles, and again repeats an image closely associated with the vanitas tradition. Glasses are often accompanied in Cornell’s work by sand, their resemblance to an hourglass serving as a further reminder of the ceaseless flow of time. In other constructions, the glass cradles a colored marble, perhaps as a metaphor for forces securing the planets or elements in place. In the present work, however, it is empty, a vessel standing at the ready to ferry souls between the earth and the heavens, floating upwards like the soap bubble it evokes.
Ultimately, Soap Bubble Set can be understood as Cornell’s metaphysical treatise on the machinations of the cosmos. His masterful layering of meanings, references, and imagery elegantly synthesize this evocative dreamscape into a statement of spiritual expression. A meditation on the transience of matter and ephemerality of earthly life, Cornell activates the complex symbolic associations of each item to remind us of the absolute eternal nature of the invisible spirit. Just as his soap bubbles are present through implication rather than physical representation, the truth of Cornell’s art is not the material objects we see but rather what Sandra Leonard Starr calls “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Castelli-Feigen-Corcoran Gallery, Joseph Cornell, Art and Metaphysics, 1982, p. 4) This fascinating construction testifies to the artist’s encyclopedic knowledge of art history and his obsession with popular culture: combining richly emblematic items from history and personal memory, Soap Bubble Set is a sublime example of Cornell’s best beloved and characteristic themes, from his very first box in 1936 and throughout the remainder of his esteemed career.
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