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Joseph Cornell and appropriated images of astronomy- a Surrealist gateway for desire

Joseph Cornell and appropriated images of astronomy- a Surrealist gateway for desire

Emma Russell explores Joseph Cornell’s interesting use of astrological images

Wanderlust, an exhibition at the RA dedicated to the works and worlds of Joseph Cornell, explores his fascination with travel. Yet, they also mention that he hardly ever travelled outside of New York State, preferring instead, to imagine the worlds of the Romantic ballet and Renaissance Italy in his home in Manhattan. This exhibition brings together a vast collection of his remarkable boxes, assemblages, collages and films, which ‘transform everyday objects into spellbinding treasures’ and runs from 7th July- 27th September 2015.

Cornell created art during the time of the Surrealists. Though he did not partake in the entirety of the political motivations of André Breton’s (1896-1966) circle, which was often associated with the Communist Party, he is often defined as a Surrealist by academics and critics due to similar practices of production and a shared overarching aesthetic.[1] Indeed, in modern literature he is almost always identified as a Surrealist practitioner and is often spoken of in relation to other pioneers of the movement such as Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Max Ernst (1891-1976) due to their influence on his work. An example of these shared processes is that they appropriated and adopted scientific approaches for their work. Cornell’s chief interest was astronomy, a subject that he had been fascinated by throughout his life. He collected over 100 books dedicated to the subject in his library, ranging from 19th century novels, children’s books and modern literature.[2] He also collected celestial maps, which included constellation charts and atlases from Johann Bayer’s Uranometria of 1603, as well as diagrams made using modern technology.[3] This collection contained numerous copies of the same books so he could appropriate the images directly for his own work.

These maps influenced Cornell’s work throughout his career, from an untitled work of 1934 (figure 2) which directly appropriates a celestial map, to his later work, which develops the theme in a much more idiosyncratic way, such as the scenario entitled Nebula, The Powdered Sugar Princess of 1941. As the art historian, James Elkins, argues in ‘Art History and Images That Are Not Art’, images ignored by Art History can often act as coded symbols.[5] Cornell and many other Surrealists used these coded objects as markers representing themes, such as eggs that were used to represent alchemy and metamorphosis.[6] However, Cornell also used the trope of the astronomical image as a means of symbolising metamorphosis and the infinite.[7] The history of science, particularly astronomy, was important to his artistic process, as he often looked back to the myths behind the constellations, indeed for some artworks this formed the basis of the work. For Untitled, created around 1934 (figure 2), he used an astrological map published in Bayer’s Uranometria, which charts the constellation of Boötes also known as the Ploughman or the Herdsman. In this reworking, the image has extra motifs included within it, such as a loaf of bread in a box and a box in which the character stands. This simple manipulation of the appropriated image brings to the fore the dedication with which he studied the stories of the constellations, for by adding these elements he highlights their history through artistic terms. One interpretation of the constellation’s narrative is that the Ploughman was placed there by Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, for his invention of the plough. Another interpretation places him as the Herdsman who is the guardian of Ursa Major, the Great Bear and Taurus.[8] This artwork by Cornell places Boötes in these roles and emphasises their importance in the image by adding further reference through the bread in the box.[9] The bread is the compound creation of the wheat element and can therefore be read as an unusual symbol of metamorphosis, which is activated only through relation to the narrative. Though he is not using the traditional framework of objects the Surrealists utilised, the artwork still uses the trope of metamorphosis. It is also important to note that the heavens were the setting of this metamorphosis and the myths of the constellations made this trope possible in this work.

This suggests that his early work is the starting point of further development which uses the heavens as a backdrop of romanticised fantasy, for his work is based upon the importance of the narratives displayed in astronomical maps from his collection. This association between fantasy and the heavens could have been his inspiration to create various collages within this setting, which incorporate figures and a narrative of his own making. An example of this is his story of Nebula, The Powdered Sugar Princess, which is an unrealised sketch for a film that was not possible to make at the time as there was not the technology to create such fantastical settings. His notes on the work consist of three reimaginings of the same scene which feature a ballerina. He describes the scene in his notes as thus:
‘The ballerina is floating like has become
a constellation the stars in her
dress tutu, one or two in her chevelure
& one in her forehead have transformed
into a constellation. Clouds of fantastic
shape resembling horses, swans, fish
ballerinas float by. Meteors flash by.’ [10]
This narrative demonstrates not only that the ballerina is placed in the setting of the heavens but specifically transforms her into a constellation. By defining this status, Cornell appropriates the history of astronomy, particularly the narratives of the constellations. This acts to simultaneously solidify her importance by placing her amongst the myths of scientific history, as well as draw upon his association of the heavens as a symbol of metamorphosis. As well as this, he mixes transitory beauty with the infinite, as, according to John Bernard Myers in his monograph, Joseph Cornell and the Outside World, Cornell associated physical aspects of nature with different lengths of time. For example, the world of beauty, such as jewels, romantic personalities and ballerinas, were immediate, however, the heavens were infinite. [11] By mixing these together he raises the ballerina’s status as a transitory being into the romantic infinity of the heavens.

Cornell had developed a passion for ballerinas as well as other female icons, at this point it was particularly aimed at the ballet dancer, Tamara Toumanova, whom he had met in November 1940 at the introduction of a mutual friend. By December, Cornell had sent Toumanova a collage, featuring her in an underwater realm dotted with stars (figure 3). He also made a number of other collages that comply with the narrative of Nebula, The Powdered Sugar Princess, such as Untitled (Celestial Fantasy with Tamara Toumanova) also from 1941 (figure 1). This suggests that she was the character he had in mind when setting out the narrative of the film. Andrew Brink in Desire and Avoidance in Art, uses attachment theory to argue that Cornell created gifts for women he admired as this was the relationship he learnt from his mother who gave him gifts to show affection when he was growing up.[12] It is proposed that this gift giving in his years of development was carried through into his later years, suggesting that to show affection he gave these women gifts; his artwork. His lack of any actual romantic connection with any of the movie stars or ballet dancers he paid homage to in his artworks points towards a removal between the physicality of the person and sexual gratification. Indeed, it could suggest that the object itself and the act of giving the gift was akin to and substituted this gratification. According to Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) inLe Système Des Objets collecting objects is a way for children to understand and master the world, which can then be carried on in later life when a link is created between collecting and sexuality, leading to satisfaction.[13] As Cornell’s process of art making involved extensive collecting, which was then manifested into an object dedicated to a specific person for whom he was obsessed with at the time, it could be argued that this action constituted passing on that sexualised action to the object of his desires. Therefore, the act of collecting and the act of giving gifts act simultaneously to create this new behaviour in Cornell. This brings a new meaning into the scenes described in Nebula, The Powdered Sugar Princess, particularly her placement in the infinite of the cosmos, for by placing her within the objects of his collection, she, or her image, becomes a part of his collection, from which he drew pleasure, as well as becoming a part of the infinite.

This means that there was the real woman, in this case Tamara Toumanova, as well as Cornell’s created semblance, which takes the image of the original but acts according to the whim of Cornell in the narrative he creates. This is evidenced in the description of the Princess’s action within the scene:
‘At the end the princess stands
on a balcony like the illust
in Gs. “Les Etoiles” & looking
straight into the camera
blows a kiss at the
solemnly blows a kiss
to the audience & then presses
her hands over her heart.’[14]
This romanticised dramatization of her actions suggests that the affection he felt for the woman could, in his artworks, be requited, though like Cornell, in an indirect manner. The use of the semblance in the setting provided by the astronomical maps that he appropriated from his collection of books and charts, act as a method of distancing between the desired female star and Cornell. The association he made between the heavens, metamorphosis and the infinite makes the semblance even more unreal, and therefore unattainable, as it is raised to a level out of the plane on which we stand.

Cornell used appropriated images of the heavens early on in his career. From simply changing some elements of the depiction of a constellation he moved on to create his own constellations and his own narratives. Though he always refused to explain his artworks, by using biographical information as well as psychoanalysis to explain certain behaviours, the motivations behind his appropriation of the scientific image can be deduced. He may have used the Surrealist associations of the heavens to metamorphosis and the infinite to allow for his appreciation of movie stars and ballet dancers whilst also distancing himself from them. The action of collecting images and making artwork from these, which he then gave to the object of his desires, took the place of actual interaction between himself and the women whom he obsessed over. Therefore, the image of the heavens was not just about scientific interest but became a setting of metamorphosis through which his romantic associations with the objects of his desires could be played out.

Emma is currently a marketing intern at Culture Syndicates, having graduated with a First Class BA in History of Art from The University of Nottingham, where she will be completing her Master’s from September 2015.


Baudrillard, Jean. Le Systeme Des Objets. London, Verso, 2005
Bate, David. Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent. London, I.B. Tauris, 2004
Bernard Myers, John. ‘Joseph Cornell and the Outside World’. Art Journal, Vol, 35. No.2. 1975-6. 115-117
Brink, Andrew. Desire and Avoidance in Art: Pablo Picasso, Hans Bellmer, Balthus and Joseph Cornell: Psychobiographical Studies with Attachment Theory. New York, Peter Lang Publishing, 2007
Cornell, Joseph. ‘Nebula, The Powdered Sugar Princess’. October, vol 15. 1980. 40-48
Heyd, Milly. ‘Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” Reconsidered’. Arbitus et Historiae. Vol 5, No 10. 1984. 121-131
Hoving, Kirsten. Joseph Cornell and Astronomy: A Case for the Stars. Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2009

[1] David Bate. Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent. (London, I.B. Tauris, 2004) 230
[2] Kirsten Hoving. Joseph Cornell and Astronomy: A Case for the Stars. (Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2009). 2
[3] Hoving. Joseph Cornell and Astronomy. 3
[4] Hoving. Joseph Cornell and Astronomy. 15
[5] James Elkins. ‘Art History and Images That Are Not Art’, The Art Bulletin, Vol.77, No.4 (1995), 553-571. 553
[6] Milly Heyd. ‘Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” Reconsidered’. Arbitus et Historiae. Vol 5, No 10. (1984). 121-131, 122
[7] John Bernard Myers. ‘Joseph Cornell and the Outside World’. Art Journal, Vol, 35. No.2. (1975-6). 115-117. 116
[8] Hoving. Joseph Cornell and Astronomy. 12
[9] Hoving. Joseph Cornell and Astronomy. 14
[10] Joseph Cornell. ‘Nebula, The Powdered Sugar Princess’. October, vol 15. (1980). 40-48. 47
[11] Myers. ‘Joseph Cornell and the Outside World’. 117
[12] Andrew Brink. Desire and Avoidance in Art: Pablo Picasso, Hans Bellmer, Balthus and Joseph Cornell- Psychobiographical Studies with Attachment Theory. (New York, Peter Lang Publishing, 2007) 139-140
[13] Jean Baudrillard. Le Systeme Des Objets. (London, Verso, 2005) 93
[14] Cornell. ‘Nebula, The Powdered Sugar Princess’. 44
G’s “Les Etoiles” refers to J.J. Grandville’s illustration L’Etoile du Soir, published in Joseph Méry’s Les Etoiles in 1849 (figure 4)

Figure 4: J.J. Grandville, L’Etoile du Soir, in Joseph Méry’s Les Etoiles, 1849, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Figure 2: Joseph Cornell, Untitled, c.1934, collage, 9 x 7 in., estate of Joseph Cornell

Figure 1: Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Celestial Fantasy with Tamara Toumanova), c.1941, Collage with sprayed and spattered paint on paperboard, 14.5 x 9.25 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Figure 3: Joseph Cornell, Hommage to Tamara Toumanova, 1940, Commercially printed papers and gouache on blue wove paper, 15.4 x 9 in. Lindy and Edwin Bergman Joseph Cornell Collection

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