Think inside the box: Joseph Cornell and his shadow boxes

We are all familiar with the iconic line from Forest Gump movie

“Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

What if somebody states that life is simply like a box? And we actually know who this person is. It is an American avant-garde artist Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972), who dedicated a great deal of his life to the making of his famous shadow boxes. 

Cornell’s boxes are an example of assemblage art. Basically, it is similar to the collage, but represented in the three-dimensional version with the usage of found objects. And yes, as soon as we mention found objects, we start talking about Marcel Duchamp and his readymades. Cornell was inspired by them and the way Duchamp transformed real-life objects into art works. For his own creations, Cornell used things he had purchased in the thrift shops of New York; these precious object were surrounded with the nostalgic aura and were full of memories. 

The boxes were often glass-fronted and resembled a minimized theatrical scene. The objects were meant to be taken in the different light, creating new, dream-like reality inside each particular box. 

And when we talk about dreams, we talk about the Surrealists. Salvador Dalí once said about Cornell that his oeuvre was “the only truly Surrealist work to be found in America.” And though our hero denied the connection with the movement, they had a lot in common. While rejecting the erotic and violent topics

peculiar to the Surrealists, he inherited the interest for the


juxtapositions and creating new realities. 

In a monograph by a poet,

Charles Simic, it is said that:
“Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist. For Cornell it’s the opposite. To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions.” Cornell was fascinated with birds, ballet dancers, Hollywood movie stars and Symbolism; he was influenced by American Transcendentalism and its ideas of individualism and connection with nature. In his works, Joseph Cornell often turned to such topics as childhood and space.

His works are also known as “memory boxes" or “poetic theaters”, they primarly talked about the escape from the real world into the artist’s world inside the boxes. He solely manged to turn a simple box into an art form. He had a great influence on the forthcoming art forms such as installation. He also inspired Fluxus boxes, often based on the Cornell’s experience. It is finally right to say that, sometimes, it is good to think inside the box

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