It might be easier
To fail – with Land in Sight –
Than gain – My Blue Peninsula –
To Perish – of Delight –
Emily Dickinson (1810 – 1886)
The Royal Academy is on tour. And we’re not talking rugby lads or flaming sambucas. No, it is the nineteenth century “Grand Tour”, the great pursuit of art, culture, and the very roots of civilization by the landed gentry that the current exhibition Wanderlust inspires. A bygone age of curiosity and oddity, rendered tangible by the ceaselessly curious and whimsical mind of Joseph Cornell, an American artist born in the early 20th Century. A man who, quite astonishingly, never set foot outside of his own country. He is the armchair voyageur extraordinaire, traveller of the imagination, and his intricate and playful works are nothing short of enchanting.
Growing up in New York, Cornell’s well-to-do parents were avid followers of the burgeoning cultural practises. Evenings were spent reading poetry or around the piano and theatre tips were a regular occurrence. A young Cornell was witness to the great Harry Houdini, whose magic acts would embed themselves into his thoughts and become a major influence on his later work. He had a happy childhood, but certainly not one without struggle. His youngest brother Robert suffered from cerebral palsy and following the premature death of their father, Cornell who was just 14, found himself head of the family and devoted himself to caring for his brother. It was not until later, while working as a textile salesman in New York, that Cornell began to collect the assortment of Victorian bric-a-brac that would come to define his oeuvre.
To wander through the exhibition is to delve into a mind obsessed with discovery. These peculiar works are the product of a man grappling to fathom the nature of the universe and our place in it. Treasures and trinkets found in New York junk shops are carefully compartmentalised or assembled into collages. These works look more like the documentation of his world trips, however imaginary, than art in the traditional sense. Navigational maps, constellations and compasses permeate his oeuvre, while photographs and letters offer a fascinating historical link. Mythical beasts, circus clowns and children’s toys are surprisingly juxtaposed with scientific memorabilia, specimen bottles and geometric grids. Perhaps it is this very boundary between fact and fiction that prevented Cornell from ever carrying out one of these great expeditions. Indeed he thrived on the sense of wonder that far away lands evoked in him, transporting him away from the humdrum of daily life. To actually go and see such places might come as rather a disappointment.
Divided into four sections, with each section exploring a theme central to his practise, Wanderlust is a considerate and unpretentious interpretation of Cornell’s thought provoking and at times, amusing pieces. If you’d not heard of him before, it’s tempting to leave the exhibition berating your prior lack of knowledge; especially after learning he was considered to be among the best American artists of his day. Instead, leave feeling thankful that once upon a time there lived an artist called Joseph Cornell, whose extraordinary imagination allowed him to see the corners of the earth far more clearly than the most experienced jetsetters of today.