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Once Upon a Time Joseph Cornell in Wonderland  
Eleonora Rovida
ISSN 1127-4883     BTA - Telematic Bulletin of Art, 8th June 2013, n. 681

The imagination's theater

Joseph Cornell is a magician artist, creator of small assemblages where the images are combined according to the alchemy of memory. The mundane objects, found in Manhattan second-hand dealers, are accumulated in Shadow Boxes, mnemonic compositions that exhibit the charm of everyday life. «Le scatole di Cornell sono come i miscugli di uno stregone. Contengono oggetti che hanno proprietà sacre e magiche» [1].

The poem that creates works is a very personal matter of the artist who, in an attempt to approach life, collects the fragments of the history and reassembles them, guided by his inner harmonies only. Cornell creates small masterpieces in three dimensions transforming the riddle of shocking matches in art: the box equalises all the elements opening the curtain on the theater of the absurd.

Shadow Boxes world is made by real objects, reassembled in accordance with the feelings of the artist, who becomes the conductor of an illogical symphony where objects-notes meet in a dance: it is not important if a pipe approaches to a moon's map or a glass contains an egg. All elements follow one music, memories.
Laying your eyes on one of the boxes is a magical rapture: the power of the glass, that reflects the viewer, projects his image within the composition, making him, by a surreal deception, the protagonist of that enchantment.
The box is an exchange of “looks”: «non sorprende che dalle scatole volti infantili ci fissino fino a confonderci, e che abbiano l’aria sognante dei bambini intenti al gioco» [2].

The charm of the miniature world is an experience of childhood: it is the size of small things, children's games, size of those dollhouses and those trains that, for small players, are objects allowing you to stimulate your imagination, to create fantastic stories in which diving and pretending.
The theme of the game is a well-known genre by Dada and Surrealist, movements so beloved by Cornell: the artist has the opportunity to meet the greatest exponents of the currents by a series of chance meetings[3] at the Julien Levy Gallery, frequent stop in his yorker raids. The gallery becomes a meeting for European artists, who landed in New York promoting the spread of Dada and Surrealist language in American art since the thirties.
The power of the game makes each object a magical tool that can build a personal “Wonderland”:

«la piccola scatola ricorda l’infanzia

è forse per via della sua nostalgia

Che piccola piccola di nuovo si fa?

e adesso lì dentro ci sta per intero

il mondo ridotto in miniatura

è facile metterlo dentro una tasca

Lo perdi lo rubi così facilmente»[4].

The poetry of small things is an historical heritage that populates as the Victorian world, so beloved by Cornell, as the culture of the Romantic-Symbolist “rag”, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. The eye of the child-artist is the portal to create the art's world and fantasizing about trivial and detail that, covered by the magical dream's dust, becomes a surreal experience.
Everyday objects are colored by a special meaning becoming mirabilia of cabinet de curiosités. Cornell's boxes similary become Wunderkammer displaying the daily, by redeveloping the object as a precious rarity.
It's the true theater of the imagination imbued by a De Chirico's nostalgic feeling: «nella mia infanzia i negozi di giocattoli vendevano ancora teatri di cartone in miniatura. Lo scenario, gli attori, i musicisti e il resto degli arredi erano stampati su fogli di carta colorata venduti a parte. Si dovevano ritagliare le figure, incollarle sul cartone, e poi farle muovere sul palcoscenico attraverso scanalature praticate nel pavimento. C’era anche un sipario rosso che si apriva e si chiudeva» [5].

The procedure that assembles elements and creates these masterpieces for dreamers is a collage's evolution. In the thirties, Cornell passes from the second to the third dimension to a very personal poetic research that pursues reality by the eyes of a child, but retains the clipping taste as an evocative madeleine. The artist is a fragment's seeker that reveals the memory: he is always on the hunt for images. The box is the result of Cornell's artistic experimentation: it is a method that combines the charm of the collage's fragment (and the found footage film) to the shape of needs and the Victorian taste to the size of the dream. The Shadow Box, in fact, seems an evolution of the nineteenth-century theaters: «ho letto che Goethe, Hans Christian Andersen e Lewis Carroll dirigevano i loro teatri in miniatura. Devono esserci stati molti teatrini di questo tipo nel mondo. Studiamo la storia e la letteratura di un’epoca, ma non sappiamo nulla di quei drammi che venivano rappresentati per un pubblico fatto di un solo spettatore» [6].

The personal and intimate version of these small stages responds to the Cornell's vernacular cult, who learns to appreciate the charm by the collages of Max Ernst, a true source of inspiration for his first steps in art.
The Victorian world seems to be the ideal tank for Cornell's compositions: the taste for the accumulation, objects, filtered trinkets by the nostalgia for the past and cartes-de-visite, such as visual souvenirs of distant countries, are the protagonists of his compositions.


The Victorian tale

The creators of miniature theaters in the Victorian era are writers of fables. The story for children (of all ages) with simple and playful tones, able to stimulate the imagination, is one of the great passions of Cornell. It is not uncommon to find cutouts of the characters or references to the fairy-tale world in his compositions: just look at the famous Swiss Shoot-the-Chutes (1941) where appears Little Red Riding Hood with the wolf or Setting for a fairy tale (1942), an ideal location to theater the Nouveaux Contes des Fees (1948), a kind of dream's archive that holds the new fairy tales.
Cornell is so fascinated by that imagery universe, in which everything is possible, to create a scenario for the Theatre of Christian Andersen [7]: the work is conceived as a collection of drawn illustrations inspired by the fabulist's tales. The artist's passion for the visual representation makes the work a theatrical tribute: the scenario, in fact, is conceived as a ballet that winds through small theaters in miniature. The sequencings images reveal the film genre that is the basis of the composition: «The images are mounted in identical frames, or theatres, resembling Andersen’s original paper cutouts, reproduced throughout the issue of the magazine»

The taste for the film fragment expresses the passion of the artist, who creates, by scenarios, movies prototypes, created by the mind. Works like this one or like Monsieur Phot, id est, are designed to be imagined rather than crafted, just for the soul that creates them: they are dream's transpositions, clearly influenced by Méliès French filmography. The typed pages work just like the cartes-de-visite: opening the curtain on the world of dreamers.
If the cult of Victorian and the passion for the story alive the magic of Cornell's theaters, is it possible that the artist was influenced by nineteenth-century writers: the art of shy “cacciatore di immagini hide elements that recall the Victorian fairy tale.
The best known of the nineteenth century storytellers is Lewis Carroll, pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, author of books for all ages children. His writings influenced generations of artists thanks to the innovative and psychological traits of his ideas: Carroll is the inspirator of thinkers such as James Joyce and Jorge Louis Borges.
The fantastic component of his work mixed shocking images associations and a presurrealist nonsense, made ​​by puns and riddles that ensnare the reader.
Alice's Adventures circulate by images thanks to the illustrations by John Tenniel: they are small masterpieces of nineteenth-century graphic, showing the quirky characters of the story according to the vernacular so beloved by Ernst. The inhabitants of Wonderland are true wonders, created by the genius of Carroll: the characters have nothing to envy to the surreal inventions of Une semaine de bonté.
In 1933 Tony Goldschmidt publics a psychological analysis about Alice's tale as a sexual metaphor:
«The fall down the rabbit hole was a symbol of sexual penetration, the doors surrounding the hallway represented female genitalia. In selecting the little door in preference to the big, Alice (or rather Dodgson in the guise of Alice), was choosing to copulate with a female child instead of an adult woman»[9].

These issues are very close to the interests of the Surrealists: between the forties and sixties, the story of Alice becomes the protagonist of their own works. Breton, who first appreciated Carroll inserting him in the Antologie de l'humor noir in 1939, carried out with the Surrealists in Marseilles a series of magical cards: the fortune-telling book, The Game of Marseille (1940-1941), where Alice is the Siren of Stars: “Stars” is a group of black and identifies dreams. Even Ernst, in 1949, is passionated for Alice's adventures creating a series of lithographs illustrating episodes from the text. The same Dali, in the sixties, engages in a group of illustrations for Carroll's tale.
The Carroll's myth grows mainly between the thirties and the fifties of the twentieth century thanks to the film versions of the story. After the first experiments of the silent cinema
[10], as the perfect realization of the Wonderland's dream, there is a film production's intensification inspired by Alice in the thirties until the most well-known Disney version in 1951.
The attention paid to the Victorian writer is amplified by the discovery of Helmut Gernsheim in 1949: in the course of his research on Julia Margaret Cameron, he found an album with one hundred and fifteen photographs of a Victorian amateur, Lewis Carroll, revealing the writer's top secret shots.
The conditions for the knowledge of Carroll's world by Cornell exist and seem to be confirmed by a couple of boxes, made in the forties: A Pantry Ballet (for Jacques Offenbach) of 1942, dedicated to the father of the operetta, and Zizi Jean Marie Lobster Ballet Box 1949, tribute to the dancer. Both boxes are a celebration of the ballet, but entirely by new characters: the lobsters. The dance, or rather the “Lobster Quadrille”, is a poem-song of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Cornell certainly knew the Lobster Quadrille because it appears in Dance Index
[11] in 1946.
The lobster of course brings to mind Gérard de Nerval
[12], beloved poet by Cornell, and the phone by Dali, but the choice to stage the dance by these characters is a direct quote. The proof of the fabulist influence to the artist is given by Robert Wernick[13] in an article on the Smithsonian Magazine in 1980: «A Cornell box can be quite light-hearted. Witness A Poetry Ballet (for Jacques Offenbach) in which the composer of the cancan melodies of Orpheus in the Underworld is celebrated by a lobster quadrille inspired by Alice in Wonderland: plastic lobsters with bead necklaces and tulle skirts hanging from strings beneath a miscellany of spoons and forks»[14].

Dodgson's works belong to the boundless source of ideas from which the “cacciatore di immagni draws. I think Cornell has inherited many elements from Carroll's art.


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

The most famous tale of the Anglo-Saxon world is a journey in the imagination, born from Alice's curiosity that, to chase the White Rabbit, falls under the ground, being in a fantastic journey like Shoot-the-Chutes: the protagonist slips by magic into a dream's slot machine. Wonderland is the childhood version of Victorian world: it is seen by the eyes of the protagonist that, by her child imagination, creates an ideal world.
Alice's meeting strung like illuminated images in a broken path: episodes are presented as fragments of an old film. The scenes are the elements that make up the adventure as if they were part of a dream: every meeting-episode is a little theater of the imagination.
Blame the White Rabbit that stimulates the curiosity of the little girl that, to chase him, is located in the midst of fairy-tale creatures that put a strain on her refined Victorian upbringing. The figure of the rabbit, identified as an Alice's adult alter ego, is the key of the journey, the navigation system that tracks the path to follow.
The theme of the chase reminds to Edgar Allan Poe's Man of the crowd which Cornell seems to be the perfect personification. White is the symbol of revelation: the dream is the way to true knowledge.
Might be a coincidence but Robert, Cornell's brother, is a rabbits fan. The visionary archivist produces Untitled (American Rabbit) between 1945-46: at the center of the composition's just a bunny. In the portraits of Cornell, snapped around 1970 by Duane Michals at Utopia Parkway, the “cacciatore di immagini proudly shows a group of garden rabbits [15].
A Cornell's collage of the Sixties, Untitled (Rabbit), represents a bunny in the middle of two arms, clearly presents in a rose garden: there are all the elements to associate this one to Alice's rabbit, Queen of Hearts' herald.

The Rabbit of Alice's story is famous for its “It's late! It's late!”, absurd expression in a world where time does not count, you celebrate not- birthdays and you speak according to the nonsense. The consequentiality is a mirage and the time is a sleepy and deformed clock, just as in the works of the Surrealists.
The pursuit of the White Rabbit, who runs the clock ticking, drives Alice in a frantic rush until she meets the Caterpillar: his color is the blue, that echoes of immateriality, the symbol of an infinite path. “Caterpillar” is the title of a short film in 1973 by Rudy Buckhardt, photographer and film-maker who worked with Cornell. The indifference of the Caterpillar is that one of the learned: he sat on his mushroom smoking a hookah. It's strange, but in the surrealist works, from Magritte to Cornell, there are so many pipes: from the famous Ce n'est pas une pipe to Soap Bubble Set, without forgetting the Cornell's illustration for the catalog of 1932's cover, dedicated to the first surrealist exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. “Hookah”, in English, has several translations, but one of these calls just bubbles: Hubble Bubble.
The caterpillar becomes a butterfly and there are references to this beautiful insect in the art of “cacciatore di immagini: it is an ephemera that populates Cornell's Butterfly Habitas.
In any trip you can not miss a refreshing stop: the March Hare (or Hare Leap) and the Mad Hatter invite Alice for a tea. The same Cornell, who practically lives by tea and cakes, could not refuse the invitation in front of a Stainless Steel Pot. The teapot is leads to a Cornell's collage titled Teapot: you can see a little girl playing just on the teapot.

Duane Michals, very closed to the Surrealists, photographed Magritte by strange overlaps between his figure and his hat. It would not be strange thinking about the artist as a “Mad Hatter”! The cylinder is also one of the more expensive items to wizards and the illusionists: it is used as a magical container from which to extract just a white rabbit.
The illusion is one of the great passions of Cornell who, fascinated by Houdini, has always been kidnapped by the magic tricks. The magic has bewitched also Michals: in Dr. Duanus famous' Famous Magic Act, he portrays himself extracting a boy's head from the cylinder. There is a phonetic similarity between the magic “act” and “hat” and Michals is a magician in language games.

For Surrealists the best illusion trick is given by the glass, capable of reflecting the images due to its similarity with the mirror. In Cornell's works, the charm for mirrors emerges in almost all of its boxes that, enclosed by a misleading glass, have the power to reflect the viewer.
In the tale of Alice, deforming power is always attached to the glass: the deception is really inside a bottle or a transparent box. In the story, in fact, Alice needs to adapt her size to situations from time to time: she drinks from bottles that invite her with notes like “drink me!” or eats from glass boxes with biscuits asking only “eat me”.
It would be nice to be able to label bottles of Cornell's Pharmacy!
The content is the magic potion that changes the shape of Alice: it is a sorcerers' trick. The child passes so from eight centimeters, which she considers a ridiculous extent, to be a giant compared to the Queen of Hearts' guards. She can finally treat those characters for the size they have. They're just a bunch of animated cards that Alice, after the return to normal stature, revise as objects of the game. It will be random, but Cornell creates Hanky ​​Panky Card Tricks for his brother Robert: «In it the royal cards come to life: the Jack performs acrobatics, the King and the Queen dance» [16].

All the characters in Alice's story seems drems-illusions, but the prince of this impalpable feeling is the Cheshire Cat, a magical cat that appears, disappears and reappears constantly. In the illustrations of Tenniel, he is often represented with a disturbing grin. Carroll was inspired by the cat appearing on the the nineteenth-century cheese packaging. The ironic grimace of the character is a metaphor for Alice's madness-elusive fantasy, the real creator of Wonderland: «The Cat is the only creatures to make explicit the identification between Alice and the madness of Wonderland» [17].

The flimsy nature of the character recalls the visual illusion photo: it is the image that appears on photographic plates, but also the impalpable and romantic effect of the calotype, so widespread in Anglo-Saxon.
Cornell shows a white cat in a soft-focus in a collage of 1967 at the Castelli Gallery: the work is titled The Sylph. The sylph, in North mythology, is a kind of genius, who lives in the air and has the power to cause the disease. Even the Kabbalists use the term to indicate the air's genes. In the women these creatures are sylphides, wind spirits. Sylphide is the first work in ballet on pointe at the Paris Opera in 1832. The first dancer is Maria Taglioni, beloved star by Cornell just as Fanny Cerrito who plays the Sylphide in the Italian version.


Through the looking-glass and What Alice Found There (1871)

Alice's adventure continues through the looking-glass, a parallel world, but reversed if compared to reality, where everything is as it is not or as it shouldn't be.
The reflection of the reality upside down causes many problems to the reader and to the same Alice: she can not even read, think and orientate in this twisted logic. It's a game, even more complicated than first trip, because everything works in reverse: the memory does not turn to the past but to the future in an intricate nonsense's web.
The power of the mirror is just an illusion: «l’illusionismo è una tecnica che usa le immagini per ingannare. Pone il problema se la percezione possa darci una conoscenza veritiera e diretta del mondo. Gli psicologi hanno ideato una ‘stanza distorta’ in cui un adulto sembra avere le dimensioni di un bambino. Altri esempi sono il labirinto degli specchi al Luna Park e i giochi di destrezza dei prestigiatori» [18].

The background of the story is a real brain teaser: it is a chessboard where the pieces come to life. In this game you have to run to stay in the same place and to double the speed to get around. The rules make it clear from the outset that the board has nothing orderly and logical: it is a surreal confusion.
The same Carroll understands that the player is in serious trouble and he systems a preface by the author at the beginning of the book: Alice moves and wins in eleven moves, but the game is much more complicated than it seems to be.
The chessgame game requires great care: they know well in Dada and Surrealism!
«Come chiunque tenti di risolvere questi problemi, la chiave di tutto è la prima mossa, che di norma è una mossa improbabile»[19]. But the strategic exercise is often more important than the final result: «Ogni tanto la necessità di trovare una soluzione era rimpiazzata dalla poesia del mio continuo fallimento. Ogniqualvolta chiudevo gli occhi, la regina bianca rimaneva là dove si trovava, nella casella nera, e così gli altri pezzi nelle loro posizioni originali, eternamente» [20].
If in the first story Alice is located in the middle of a cards' deck at the Queen of Hearts' service, in this second adventure, she becomes the pawn in a chessgame. The transition from two-dimensional to three-dimensional supports the deception just as it happens in Cornell's art when he switches from collage to Shadow Boxes.
The journey's chessboard-background is a metaphor of reality: you can tell from the start, the two kittens that symbolize the White Queen and The Black Queen. In the works of Cornell there is the same correspondence: his chessboard is the city, creative reservoir for his art.
«La città come una scacchiera sulla quale i pochi pezzi rimasti sono immobili e senza nome» [21].

The box is the choice's mirror of New York city found objects: the selection of elements and their positioning in space are the result of a precise meditation by the artist. «Altre volte Cornell solleva l’oggetto, come si farebbe con un pezzo degli scacchi, e rimane a lungo immobile, perso in riflessioni complicate. Molte delle scatole mi fanno pensare a problemi scacchistici in cui rimangono in gioco non più di sei o sette pezzi» [22].

There is a Cornell's collage of 1965, What makes a Rainbow, dedicated to Jeanne Eagels where there are a little girl playing with cards and a chessboard, two clear references to Alice. The game has its own logic: as well as the Alice's adventures. The world of the mirror has its own rules and language that answers to the operation of that world. The nonsense of the images belows the language one: the world turned upside down upsets the traditional language's meaning to find a very personal one.
The rhythm and sound are misleading: Alice puzzles Jabberwocky's verses holding the book in front of the mirror to see the spelled backwards in the right direction. The sound suggests something familiar to her memory, but she can not decipher it. It's the code of the dream, the world through the mirror's one, but also the art of Cornell's one, who creates anti-traditional works by traditional media suivingthe wake of De Chirico's Metaphysics, Dada's game and Surrealist's trick.
Even the word
is therefore part of the game and follows its own rules. The personification of all this nonsense is Humpty Dumpty, an egg that speaks by riddles convinced by its logic: it's the master of the language because every word he utters takes on the meaning that he gives it. This figure encountered by Alice is the key to the whole work of Carroll: «la parola è quello che io voglio farla significare, né piùmeno» [23].
In the art of Co
rnell, logic is given by the inner harmonies of the artist who, according to its rules, assembles images in a very personal way: the artist is the Humpty Dumpty of its creation. The singular form of the character reminds many surrealist works: the egg often appears in Cornell's creations, but also in Magritte's art. Its historical significance is linked to life, fertility, resurrection, a concept that goes with the art where the egg represents the container of the alchemical process.
Humpty Dumpty is the only one with the key (or better, the solution) of Carroll's nonsense world: it is the only possible translator of the Jabberwocky. The nonsense rhyme is not an handful of isolated lines, but it becomes a source of inspiration for a short text by Carroll,
The Hunting of a Snark, published in 1876. The Hunting of the Snark, a fusion of shark and snake, is an adventure searching a monstrum that is double and elusive at the same time: it is the unrepresentable of the existence, perfect lymph to Surrealism. Cornell would be the ideal master of that hunters and sailors toop that sails in hallucination, in the mirage of a dream that runs through the life.


The other side of the mirror

Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There is a revealing work, an open text to various interpretations thanks to the keys of access, albeit enigmatic, left by the author. The work, ie, is a door to enter the real world of Carroll: his inner reality experienced by the eyes of the dream. The mirror is the bridge between two worlds, Victorian Dodgson with its own rules and its hypocrisies and Carroll, acrobat in his Wonderland.
The mirror as a metaphor of the double does not only refer to the dream's necessity of the author, but also to the reality behind a very special glass. Dodgson is not only a teacher, a mathematician and a writer, but also a photographer. More than a profession, photography is a passion: fascinated by the modern miracle, Dodgson considers the camera like a mysterious and seductive object, able to ensnare and to release his personal inner world. In 1858 he composed The Legend of Scotland, a divertissement in medieval English: Carroll pretends to report an ancient Scottish legend in 1325 telling about a wonderful machine, Chimera, by which “many images are taken”. Chimera is of course the
camera that, at the end of the nineteenth century, is still considered as something magical. “Chimera” and “camera” in English are pronounced in the same way.
The objective, therefore, is identifiable with Alice's mirror, due to its ability to become the filter by which to express a distorted reality, but strongly felt and imagined. The deception objective is a magical tool to express the necessity of game.

The extremely close affinity between the dream and the photography in the art of Carroll is the subject of a written by Bressaï in 1970, Lewis Carroll o l’altra faccia dello specchio[24]. Bressaï emphasizes the correspondence between the two worlds as very natural, «una grande affinità del resto legava il suo universo, popolato di trabocchetti, di giochi di specchi, di magiche trasformazioni, a quello della fotografia» [25].
The camera seems to be the ideal way to give life to the photographer's imagination: «Carroll si trovava perfettamente a suo agio nello spazio irreale della camera oscura, dove i raggi luminosi, fissandosi, ricreano le apparenze fuggevoli e impalpabili della realtà. Rivelare le immagini latenti, captarle, fissarle per sempre e materializzarle»
The machine becomes the Chimera to paint the dream, to shape it, to assemble it by extrapolating it from its context and giving it a new life just as it is in the art of Cornell: «La morte del soggetto, la sua resurrezione al di là del reale, l’arresto del tempo, la presenza di ciò che è presente, tutti questi paradossi Carroll li ha vissuti un’infinità di volte dietro il suo obiettivo»
The mirror as the lens is not only a step to the world in which everything is possible, but also the barrier that defines the real. The author-photographer looks in the mirror-lens to cross, by the eye of the mind, life with its rules and its restrictions. His position is that one of the voyeur that goes well with the idea of ​​photography: «Noi fotografi siamo una genia di bricconi, di guardoni e di ladri. Ci troviamo ovunque non siamo desiderati; tradiamo segreti che nessuno ci confida; spiamo senza vergogna ciò che non ci riguarda e ci appropriamo di cose che non ci appartengono. E, a lungo andare, ci ritroviamo possessori delle ricchezze di un mondo che abbiamo depredato»[28].
The world of photography is a clearing house of Dodgson's life, frustrated by the rules of the Victorian world that doesn't let him to live that free dream. Through the lens-mirror, Dodgson won his space and gives shape to his passions building his ideal world, populated by imagination that creates and forges everything.


Creazy for girls [29]

The world, dreamed up by Carroll, is timeless and without restrictions: his desire to live in contact with children is actually in his imagination. His relationship with girls is special and denotes a great aversion to time, to adulthood. The moment is the eternity of the game in an endless maze where pitfalls are the way of the imagination.
Carroll had a fondness for the world of those little fairies, stars as in his dreams as in his shots. Carroll's photographs bring to light a lot of his fantasy: girls, dressed by leaves and thin clothes, seem to be wood nymphs, companions of afternoons, spent fantasizing, telling stories and riddles. It's hard not to think about Cornell's Nymphlight.
Carroll's dream is difficult to achieve in the Victorian world: the suspicious gaze of his contemporaries and the concerns of the critics have turned away from the freshness of the desire to surround himself by children. Romanticism, that enhances the power of the childhood's dreamy eyes, emerges in the art of Carroll, as in Cornell's one, but it is a legacy of Christian memory.
Cornell also had a great love for children, ideals recipients of his art: all his surreal creations are an evolution of first toys for his brother Robert. In the letters preserved in the Smithsonian Institution there are lots of Children Correspondence pages. The eye of Cornell does not hesitate to rest on children, creatures with his same imagination, able to fantasize banal objects because everything is game as in the most perfect surrealist tradition.
The eye of Cornell investigates the nature of childhood and the wonder of children: just look at the trilogy of Found Footages, mounted by Larry Jordan in the sixties. Cotillion, The Midnight Party and The Children Party are groups of frames, populated by figures of children and crossed by a deep nostalgic feeling:
«the trilogy celebrates the ephemerality of variety performances (acrobats, children, seales, and knife-throwers, etc., etc.), and the filming of live performance confronts what Doane Calls the problematic question of representability of the ephemeral, of the archiviability of presence»[30]. These are the same issues contained in Dance Index.
The reading runs between the meanings of presence and absence just like in the boxes:
«In this reading, part of the frisson produced by the films would be ‘the disjunctive of a presence relieved, a presence haunted by historicity’ that is the pathos of archival desire»[31].
The lens, the camera or the frame always capture an image, viewed by dreamy and voyeuristic eyes as for Cornell as for Carroll, sublimation of that mind's eye that distinguishes them and portal to free their imagination.

«L’intera vita amorosa di Lewis Carroll fu mediata dalla fotografia, passò attraverso di essa. Era il suo paese delle meraviglie, l’altra faccia dello specchio» [32].


The art of photography: a secret's casket

Lewis Carroll is the author of writings on photography. Especially one can be read as his photographic autobiography, or as a set of those adventures and feelings looking through the mirror or better the lens.
In 1857 he ends the The Legend of Hiawatha creation: «Ispirandosi all’eroe indiano della Song of Hiawatha (1855), del poeta romantico Longfellow, trasforma il protagonista in un fotografo, ossia in un suo alter ego» [33].

The idea of ​​identifying the hero with a photographer approaches the script to his reality, that one of an artist fascinated by a box with magical powers, alchemical portal for the imagination. Every single movement, that drives the gears, is the stage of a ritual that smacks of witchcraft. The real charm of photography is an illusion, a looking game, the reflection of a spell, which previously could only be thought about.
Even Cornell, approaching the cinematography, identified himself with a photographer: the artist realizes the deception and his identification with Monsieur Phot, a photographer who has a very similar sense to that of a camera. It is a set of typed pages, designed to be viewed by a stereoscope. The photographer's eye accidentally falls on a group of children playing in the street: one of them reminds Cornell's brother, Robert. It is no coincidence that, in the English language, “lens” and “eye” are translated by “eye”, fantastic filter for the dreaming survey.
Photography is a magical operation just as for Carroll: «gli obiettivi sempre più sofisticati, le pellicole sempre più sensibili, gli infiniti progressi tecnici non riescono a demistificare un atto che, dopo oltre un secolo, continua a sembrare una stregoneria. Pose interminabili, forzata immobilità, silenzio e respiro sospeso… fanno parte di un rituale quasi religioso e il fotografo, che estrae a profusione immagini dalla sua scatola misteriosa, pare un alchimista, un mago» [34].
Here again Cornell magician, creator of magic wonders as art readymades!
By extremely artlessness due to the childhood fantasy, Cornell makes found object as something magic: lifting a rock in Central Park, he manages to show us a fairy who, in proportion, should be about eight centimeters high. And if was that fairy Alice? Be a coincidence, but, before finding the suitable title for his masterpiece, Carroll had given different names to his story: amongst Alice among the fairies.
In the park of New York there is just a statue dedicated to Alice: Central Park is one of most frequented places by Cornell and that statue is the subject of a work of Yayoi Kusama, Alice in Wonderland Happening in 1968.
The artist has had a relationship with the “cacciatore di immagini”.
Perhaps it is not so strange to think about Cornell as a twentieth century Carroll. Even Robert Delford Brown, recalling Cornell in an interview with Mark Bloch, had the same idea: «He was like the guy who wrote Alice in Wonderland»






[1] C. SIMIC, J CORNELL, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell(ita. tr. by A. Cattaneo, Il cacciatore di immagini. L’arte di Joseph Cornell) Milano 2005², p. 75

[2] Ivi, p. 74

[3] R. COHEN, A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967 (ita. tr. by S. Manferlotti, Un incontro casuale. Le vite intrecciate di scrittori e artisti americani, 1845-1967), Milano 2006.

[4] V. POPA, La piccola scatola cit. SIMIC 2005, p. 71

[5] SIMIC 2005, p. 85

[6] Ivi, p. 84

[7] It was published in 1945 in two pages of Dance Index, but it was written in the thirties, in the same years of Monsieur Phot.

[8] P. ADAMS SITNEY, The cinematic gaze of Joseph Cornell, in “Joseph Cornell”, Show book by K. McShine, Museum of Modern Art 1980, New York, 1996², p. 72.

[9] A. M. E. GOLDSCHMIDT, Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalyzed, “The New Oxford Outlook”, edited by Richard Crossman, Gilbert Highet, and Derek Kahn. Basil Blackwell, 1933.

[10] First Alice's film version are from silent film: C. Hepworth e P. Stow, Alice in Wonderland (1903); E. S. Porter, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1910); W. W. Young, Alice in Wonderland (1915)

[11] Smithsonian Institution Archives, Joseph Cornell Papers: Source Material, Subject Source Files. Publishing Projects, Dance Index, 1946. (Box 17, Folder 23) foglio 59.

[12] He was known because he walked in Paris with a lobster on a leash

[13] R. Wernick wrote for Life, Harper's Bazaar, The Saturday Evening Post, The Kenyon Review, Readers' Digest, Connoisseur, Vanity Fair, Smithsonian, Encounter, Sports Illustrated, The Times of Malta, Cahiers d'Hermeutique postmoderne, The New Republic.

[14] R. WERNICK, The Lightfoot Boxer, “Smithsonian Magazine”, New York 1980

[15] D. ASHTON, A Joseph Cornell Album, New York 1974, p. 46.

[16] Joseph Cornell 1996², p. 72

[17] N. AUERBACH, Alice in Wonderland: A Curious Child, in “Romantic Imprisonement”, New York 1986, p. 140

[18] SIMIC 2005, p. 69-70

[19] SIMIC 2005, pp. 77-78

[20] Ivi, p. 78

[21] Ivi, p. 113

[22] Ivi, p. 77

[23] Lewis Carroll, Alice nel Paese delle Meraviglie e Attraverso lo specchio Magico, by S. Vinci, Roma 2009, p. 221

[24] Bressaï, Lewis Carroll Photographe ou L’autre côté du miroir, (trad ita. a cura di R. Rizzo, Lewis Carroll fotografo o l'altra faccia dello specchio), in R. RIZZO,Lewis Carroll fotografo”, Milano 2009, p. 24.

[25] Ibidem

[26] Ibidem

[27] Ibidem

[28] Ibidem

[29] Lewis Carroll. Matto per le bambine. Lettere e ritratti, a cura di C. Muschio, Viterbo 2001

[30] J. NIELAND, Feeling Modern: The Eccentricities of Public Life, Champaign (IL), 2008, p. 182

[31] Ibidem

[32] Lewis Carroll fotografo 2009, p. 24

[33] Ivi, p. 12

[34] Ivi, p. 13

[35] M. BLOC, Interview with Robert Delford Brown, Whitehot Magazine, New York, Vol. 31, Num. I, March 2008, <>



P. ADAMS SITNEY, The cinematic gaze of Joseph Cornell, in “Joseph Cornell”, Show book by K. McShine, Museum of Modern Art 1980, New York, 1996², p. 69-79

D. ASHTON, A Joseph Cornell Album, New York 1974.

N. AUERBACH, Alice in Wonderland: A Curious Child, in “Romantic Imprisonement”, New York 1986

M. BLOC, Interview with Robert Delford Brown, Whitehot Magazine, New York, Vol. 31, Num. I, March 2008, in <

R. COHEN, A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967, (ita. tr. by S. Manferlotti, Un incontro casuale. Le vite intrecciate di scrittori e artisti americani, 1845-1967), Milano 2006.

A. M. E. GOLDSCHMIDT, Alice in Wonderland'Psychoanalyzed, “The New Oxford Outlook”, edited by Richard Crossman, Gilbert Highet, and Derek Kahn. Basil Blackwell, 1933.

M. LIVINGSTONE, The Essential Duane Michals, Boston 1997.

R. MALLARDI, Lewis Carroll scrittore-fotografo vittoriano. Le voci del profondo e l' “inconscio ottico”, Napoli 2001.

Lewis Carroll. Matto per le bambine. Lettere e ritratti, a cura di C. Muschio, Viterbo 2001.

J. NIELAND, Feeling Modern: The Eccentricities of Public Life, Champaign (IL) 2008.

A. NIGRO, Tra polimaterismo e polisemia: note sul collage surrealista, in “Collage/Collages. Dal Cubismo al New Dada, Show book by M.M. Lamberti e M.G. Messina, (Torino 2007-2008), Milano, 2007, pp. 280-296.

R. RIZZO, Lewis Carroll fotografo,Milano 2009.

Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, Show book by L. Roscoe Hartigan, (Salem, Washington 2006 – 2007), Salem, Washington, London 2006.

A. SBRILLI, P. CASTELLI, Esplorazioni, estensioni, costellazioni. Aspetti della memoria in Joseph Cornell, “La Rivista di Engramma on line”, n. 70, march 2009, <>.

A. SBRILLI, Joseph Cornell. Ogni cosa è illuminata, “Art e Dossier”, n. 260, November 2009.

C. SIMIC, J CORNELL, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, (ita. tr. by A. Cattaneo, Il cacciatore di immagini. L’arte di Joseph Cornell) Milano 2005².

D. SOLOMON, Utopia Parkway: the life and work of Joseph Cornell, Boston 2004.

Lewis Carroll, Alice nel Paese delle Meraviglie e Attraverso lo specchio Magico, by S. Vinci, Roma 2009.

D. WALDMAN, Collage, Assemblage and the Found Object, London 1992.

D. WALDMAN, Joseph Cornell: Master of dreams, New York 2002.

R. WERNICK, The Lightfoot Boxer, “Smithsonian Magazine”, New York 1980.







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