A Peter Pan of Sorts: Entering Joseph Cornell’s Neverland


Me with Joseph Cornell’s Setting for a Fairytale (far left), 1942

“All children, except one, grow up.” Joseph Cornell did not grow up. In fact he supposedly only entered adolescence when he was in his 60s. He was the living Peter Pan who remained a child for most of his life. Cornell is a fascinating artist. Fascinating through his character, his creativity, his imagination. Fascinating for the imaginary alternate life he created and and nested in through the magical boxes he created.

It was my university lecturer Carol Mavor who introduced me to Cornell as being like Peter Pan. She writes about art through a fairytale tinted lens; so enthusiastic in her research that it’s all engrained in some dark forest in my head. So I’m foraging through my memories of her teaching me and further into the compelling character of Joseph Cornell.


Lets start at the beginning. Joseph was born December 24th 1903 and grew up in Brooklyn on a street called Utopia Parkway; a safe nest which he never left. He had a very happy childhood. He lived with his parents and his brother Robert and two sisters Betty and Helen. His brother Robert was unfortunately confined to a wheelchair as he suffered from cerebral palsy. Joseph was extremely close with his brother and spent most of his life taking care of him. Mr and Mrs Cornell were very loving parents. They were a very active family, his parents taking them to the theatre, opera and concerts in Manhattan. He grew up in an enriching house and this comes through in all his art. As a young boy Cornell read avidly, devouring fairytale books by Hans Christian Anderson, The Brothers Grimm and popular American children’s literature. This thirst for knowledge developed into an obsession. Cornell became fascinated by French literature, interested by earlier cultures, even developing a form of nostalgia as if they were his memories. Words and poems became an ingredient and inspiration for many of his magical boxes.

When Joseph was seventeen his father tragically died and so Joseph was forced to become the man of the family. He had to take care of his mother and his brother Robert who needed a lot of care and attention. It is claimed that Cornell only started creating his artistic boxes as toys for his brother, many of them having playful mechanisms within. Robert was unable to leave his chair and so perhaps Cornell made the boxes as miniature worlds in which his brother could to escape to.


At seventeen he got his first job in the textile industry, peddling goods across lower manhattan. Something that Cornell did not enjoy. Being a reclusive man he did not like being forced into contact with other people, preferring encounters to be on his own terms. This was however a very important time for Cornell. When working in Manhattan he began to explore its districts: a catalyst which created an explosion in his imagination. Manhattan became for him a magical maze full of adventure and opportunity. He turned it into a fairytale city in his mind. He even described its skyscrapers as being like the church spires in Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Magi panel from the Ghent Altarpiece – one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen. He even referred to these adventures as being ‘pilgrimages’, highlighting how they were enriching and healing for him.

To see images of the beautiful Ghent Altarpiece and its Church Spires see: http://www.backtoclassics.com/gallery/janvaneyck/theghentaltarpieceadorationofthelambdetail/

So Joseph began to weave and wander through the theatre district in Manhattan exploring the streets and igniting his imagination. These trips became his grand tour. Cornell never travelled further than into Manhattan. Through his journeys he educated himself. He became a connoisseur of the streets, embodying the 19th century ‘flaneur’, a character popularized by the french writer Charles Baudelaire. A figure who wanders through the city, distinctly distant from passing people, as a keen voyeur of modern life. Whilst on these journeys Cornell began to frequent penny arcades and junk shops where he began collecting items. He saw beauty in the banal objects that people had tossed out as junk. He saw grandeur in the stories and lives that they possessed. Bath tubs filled with books and shoes. Objects placed together that create bizarre conversations. He collected in vast quantities old magazines of no worth, shells and feathers etc and stored them in the basement of the family house on utopia parkway. He created a library of found objects, filling boxes and boxes with these forgotten treasures. He also created dossiers of information about people he was fascinated by, particularly famous actresses he developed crushes on and imagined himself to be in relationships with. In a monographic book on Cornell I read recently edited by Kynaston McShine, there was a lovely idea that Cornell’s voyages into Manhattan were like visits to the library where he would pick up verbs, nouns and words as objects that he could take home to file away until he was ready to make a visual poem. This is what he then learnt to do. He took the objects and brought them together, creating new connections within the wooden frame to give them new meaning.

a diary journal repository laboratory,

picture gallery, museum, sanctuary,

observatory, key… the core of a labyrinth,

a learning house for dreams and visions

– Cornell referring to the boxes in his basement.

Cornell and Surrealism

Cornell is most often referred to as a Surrealist artist, being one of his main influences. However he never officially joined any artistic group. He was self taught and existed alone. Cornell first encountered Surrealism in Julien Levy’s Gallery in 1931 when he walked in to see Levy carrying a collage by Max Ernst. A collage being when different forms and materials are taken out of their normal environment and placed in free associations with other objects to create a whole image with a new meaning. From this strange associations can be made, something Ernst played upon, and Cornell had seen in the junk shops. This idea of two things being brought together is a fundamental basis of surrealism, a movement which centers upon creating a surreal reality found in between the conscious world and the subconscious world. There is a similarity between what Ernst was doing and what Cornell began to do. Whereas Ernst’s surrealism is often accented by heavy eroticism, Cornell’s art is very childlike focusing upon dreams and poetry of a naive quality.

To see Max Ernst’s Collages Follow the link: Max Ernst, La femme 100 Têtes, 1929″ http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/events/exhibitions/in-the-musee-dorsay/exhibitions-in-the-musee-dorsay-more/article/les-collages-de-max-ernst-20484.html?cHash=83c594fbdb

Another key influence upon Cornell and his artistic development was Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp, being a hero of C20th century art (historically battling with Picasso for top spot), became friends with Cornell and remained so for most of their lives. In 1913 Duchamp did something revolutionary by creating his Bicycle Wheel – termed a readymade object – where he placed a wheel on a stool. Here two objects are brought together, disregarding their previous functions, to create a new meaning. Again we can see that Cornell does something similar in his boxes by taking objects from his basement library and placing them within the structure to create something beautiful.

Although Cornell interacted with the Surrealists and even exhibited with them in New York, he was never a self-confessed member of the movement. This is verbalized through his art which branches away and beyond the Freudian formula underlying European Surrealist art. Cornell’s work belongs in its own category. He was self taught, having taken an apprenticeship with a local carpenter. It’s not an art of the highest skill but of the highest imagination. His boxes are enchanting because you are allowed into the mind of the man who dreams them up. So enchanting that you want to leap right into them.

So what draws us into his boxes. Why do we want to enter?

As my professor explained in a lecture, the miniature size of his boxes reminds us of being a child. The time of utter innocence and honesty that we are nostalgic for. Its in the miniature that we encounter that because it reminds us of playing with toys. In fact Cornell used to allow the children living on his street to take the boxes home and play with them. When I look at Cornell’s boxes I immediately want to do the same. I want to enter in to the world that he creates in the box.


Joseph Cornell, Setting for a Fairytale (left), 1942

I want to enter into ‘Setting for a Fairytale’ (1942). The perfect castle sitting in the middle of the impenetrable forest. Hidden. Here in the first of a series of similar constructions and design Cornell has combined an engraving by C16th designer Jacques Androuet de Cerceau of the Château de Madrid in Paris, its windows cut out and filled with mirrors, within a forest made from painted twigs. The engraving which looks like a stage design reminds us of the opera or ballet. During the 1930s there was a revival in the Romantic Ballet. Cornell associated classic ballets like Swan lake and Sleeping Beauty with the fairytales he had read as a child, it therefore provided him with the fantasy and escape he eagerly sought in his own life. This fantasy included falling in love with many ballerinas. He would make boxes as homages to certain dancers and leave them on their dressers for them to come back to at the end of their performances. Whilst he was creating ‘Setting for a Fairytale’ one of his favourite ballerinas, Tamara Toumanova, was dancing the Ballet Sleeping Beauty. Perhaps he created this scene as an ode to her dance.

There is something dark about this box. It is simultaneously seductive and sinister. Just like classic tales written by The Brothers Grimm. (Remember how the ugly stepsisters had to cut off their toes to fit their feet into Cinderella’s slipper?) There is something very still and quiet and timeless about the scene opened up to us. It makes it even more enchanting. I am even more intrigued. I want to enter and become part of his world. I want to be Alice and go through the looking glass. But of course glass is impenetrable despite its transparent quality. Cornell also uses mirrors as a form of compulsion. As we stand in front of the box we catch glimpses of ourselves in the little mirrored windows. Again Cornell is drawing us in, pulling us into his setting. But as close as we want to get the glass is a barrier. You can never enter the worlds.

Cornell himself said that he longed to enter his boxes. But why? He embodies the idea of the “armchair voyager”, a person who travels in their imagination and poetic endeavors. The poet Charles Simic compared Cornell and Emily Dickinson as armchair voyagers saying, “Voyagers and explorers of their own solitudes, they make them vast, make them cosmic.” As such a voyager Cornell seems nostalgic. Nostalgic for the worlds he creates – earlier eras – that he is able to travel to in his art. “I am almost drowned in nostalgia” Cornell said himself. Nostalgia being a desire to return. He creates his own fairy tales to fulfill this desire.

And so this is why Cornell is like Peter Pan. He surrounded himself by his dreams and lived there. He never grew up or flew the nest.

“Forget them, Wendy. Forget them all. Come with me where you’ll never, never have to worry about grown up things again. Never is an awfully long time.”  – J.M.Barrie


Carol Mavor, Reading Boyishly: Roland Barthes, J. M. Barrie, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Marcel Proust, and D. W. Winnicott, Duke university Press, 2007.

Kynaston McShine, Joseph Cornell, Museum of Modern Art, 1980.

Dr. Philip Rylands, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2004.


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