I had a glorious evening at the Royal Academy of Arts last week. After a busy week, I had the pleasure of starting my Friday evening in the splendid surroundings of the Reynolds Room for an in conversation with Sir Peter Blake and Tim Marlow. They were discussing the work of Joseph Cornell and relating Blake’s interest in collecting to that of Cornell. The event was part of a programme of events running alongside the fantastic exhibition Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust.
I have long been an admirer of Blake’s work and also fascinated by his collections. I loved the Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector at the Barbican Gallery earlier this year in which a sample of his collection and artwork featured and The Museum of Everything’s collaboration with Blake back in 2011, also displaying some of his magnificent collections.
I’ve always been a collector, or perhaps more accurately, a hoarder. Both of my parents are hoarders so I don’t think I stood a chance! I believe that there’s a correlation between hoarding and creativity. The reason I can’t call myself a collector is that none of my gathered categories are large or precious enough to really call them a collection, except for my obsession with masks. I’ve made bodies of artwork about collecting but on the whole, I can justify most of my strange accumulations (and behaviour in general for that matter) by saying “it’s for an art project”. I’ve even got my family involved in the madness, collecting flies from windowsills and saving pepper seeds for me.
I was therefore very interested to hear Peter Blake describing the distinction between his and Cornell’s collecting. Blake collects things that appeal to him for the sake of making a collection and having them. They may well inspire and artwork and he enjoys appropriately appropriating the work of those he admires. And of course, one of these artists is Joseph Cornell. Cornell was also an avid collector of objects and maps and things but these accumulations were for the purposes of making things from them. They were carefully categorised but so as to facilitate his making.
I’ve loved Cornell’s work ever since I encountered it many years ago. I love it for it’s immediacy and accessibility. You don’t need to be an art-world aficionado to understand it, in fact that might even hamper someone’s appreciation of it. One simply needs to look and allow themselves to enter the world he’s created for them to explore.
Sir Peter Blake first encountered Cornell in the mid 1950s. He talked about acquiring his first Cornell box from a dealer or ‘procurer’ as he put it! It was a swap for a painting from Blake which he never quite got around to doing. Cornell’s work rose greatly in worth and the box was taken back. Apparently the plaster at the back had begun to crack a little and Blake wasn’t sure what to do about that anyway.
With their timeless quality, I can’t help wondering if they look even better today with a bit of decay.
I learnt that Cornell never studied as an artist and worked as a textile salesman before losing his job in the Great Depression. He made work through collage and his own unique assemblage that came naturally to him.
Blake described his own artistic practice as tree-like. The trunk is a figurative painter, and the branches follow explorations into engraving, etching, sculpture, and so on.
Blake talked about Tony Curtis who was a fan of Cornell and collected 6 of Cornell’s boxes before starting to make his own! Blake has also been inspired by Cornell but his versions are more subtle appropriations. He showed us an example after the talk which was a real treat to see.
I took delight in visiting the exhibition after the talk. It was amazing to see so many examples all at once. I felt transported into Cornell’s imaginary world.
How amazing that Cornell never travelled. He knew the world and beyond so well through his extensive reading and fascination with maps and star charts. It feels as though his art making was his exploration, escaping so far beyond his local streets with his own imagination. He cared for his mother and brother and it seems as though there’s a sense of yearning, nostalgia, and oppression in his art. Expansive worlds confined within restrictive boxes.
Cornell’s intuitive and poetic way of making art shines through. On exploring the exhibition after the talk, the sense of these being little Wunderkammer or Cabinets of Curiosity shone through. Not big, show-off displays but little private universes. Cornell achieved everything I hoped to in my ‘Surface Views‘ series but didn’t, perhaps because I was thinking too much or even because I was attempting to cast grey magic…
Cornell enjoyed the surreal art of the time but denounced the ‘black magic’ of it’s subversive and erotic elements. He, instead, wanted to cast a ‘white magic’ with his work of the innocence and games of youth and that sense of discovery with open eyes.
The whole evening made me feel transported by white magic.