Birds and Victorian-era ballerinas: Joseph Cornell’s foremost obsessions. In 1940, Cornell became infatuated with the little known dancer Fanny Cerrito: he told friends of hallucinatory visions of her, and devoted...
Birds and Victorian-era ballerinas: Joseph Cornell’s foremost obsessions. In 1940, Cornell became infatuated with the little known dancer Fanny Cerrito: he told friends of hallucinatory visions of her, and devoted many boxes to her memory. He never could have seen Cerrito dance: she died in 1909, and the role that Cornell most admired had been performed a full century prior. Cerrito danced in the title role of Ondine in 1843. The ballet tells the story of the titular water-nymph’s courtship by a knight–a romance divided by two unbridgeable worlds. The theme of unwinnable love was central to all of Cornell’s work. Cornell made his earliest boxes devoted to Cerrito and Ondine in the early 1940s, but the motifs resurface through his career. By the end of the '40s, he had made birds his central preoccupation, and in the present box, the nocturnal owl–bird of dreams and fantasy–is symbolically given to his unreachable water-nymph, Fanny Cerrito–a romance as doomed as the love of an 1840s dancer by a 1940s artist.
The making of the Owl Boxes dates largely from the mid-1940s, a time when Cornell took many rural excursions by bicycle from his home on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York. In his diary, he wrote eloquently about the nostalgia and elation aroused by the sight of the old houses and meadows in the outlying suburbs, and he recorded memorably how he gathered the materials for the Owl Boxes: "The many trips made by bicycle gathering dried grasses of different kinds, the fantastic aspect of arriving home almost hidden on the vehicle by the loads piled high . . . These final siftings were used for habitat (imaginative) boxes of birds, principally owls. The boxes were given a coating of glue on the insides then the grass dust thrown in and shaken around until all the sides had an even coating to give them the aspect of a tree-trunk or nest interior."
The artist; to His estate, 1972-1980; [Castelli, Feigen, Corcoran, New York, c. 1980]; Private collection, Illinois, until the present
Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitechapel Gallery, London; Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf; Palazzo Pitti, Florence; Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville, Paris; Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Cornell Retrospective, November 17, 1980-March 21, 1982, no. 162 // Castelli, Feigen, Corcoran, New York, Joseph Cornell and the Ballet, November 2-December 18, 1983 // Fundación Juan March, Madrid; Fundación Joan Miró, Barcelona, Joseph Cornell, April-July 1984 // Thomas McCormick, American Surrealism, April 2001 // Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, November 7, 2006-January 7, 2007
Kynaston McShine, Joseph Cornell, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980, no. 162, p. 291, illus.
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