Great Joseph Cornell Was Shadow Player, Christian Mystic

To mark the centenary of the birth of Joseph Cornell (1903-72), Richard L. Feigen and Company has organized a superb exhibition of the artist’s shadowbox constructions and collages, and in the same spirit of homage this show is accompanied by two very different tributes to Cornell’s extraordinary career. One is a large, lavishly illustrated book called J oseph Cornell: Shadowplay … Eterniday (Thames and Hudson, 272 pages, $60). The other is a smaller exhibition at Feigen and Company of collages and constructions by the late Ray Johnson (1927-95), an artist-friend who was Cornell’s most devoted disciple.

The Shadowplay volume includes extensive commentaries on Cornell’s life and work by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Richard Vine, Robert Lehrman and Walter Hopps. The book also comes with DVD-ROM containing an exhaustive survey of every aspect of the copious Cornell oeuvre . No bauble, soap-bubble set or ballet dancer in the artist’s work goes unrecorded in this electronic directory of his entire repertory of images. Such a comprehensive image bank will no doubt be a boon to Cornell scholarship, yet one shudders to think of the Niagara of Ph.D. dissertations, interpretations and dissections that will soon be rolling off the academic presses thanks to this massive documentation. Come to think of it, some of the interpretations on offer in Shadowplay read like a preview of coming attractions.

I’ve been an admirer of Cornell’s work for more than half a century, but I must confess it never occurred to me to suspect that this consummate aesthete and fantasist had all along been living a secret life as a Christian mystic. We owe this revelation-if that’s what it is-to Richard Vine’s go-for-broke essay, “Eterniday: Cornell’s Christian Science ‘Metaphysique,’” which attempts to trace the influence of Mary Baker Eddy’s religious doctrines on virtually every aspect of Cornell’s life and work. (Mary Baker Eddy, of course, was the founder of Christian Science.) To convey both the zeal and the ingenuity that Mr. Vine brings to this Christian Science analysis of Cornell’s art, his essay must be quoted at some length. Here’s a representative passage:

“In Cornell, with his emphasis on supra-logical conjunction (eterni-day), as in the entire Romantic tradition from which his procedure derives via Symbolism and Surrealism, that psychic mechanism was the very basis of his art. The exalted Fanny Cerrito, Hedy Lamarr, Marie Taglioni, Susan Sontag, or Tamara Toumanova, like a thousand young women noticed on the street, betoken much more than themselves; they are spiritual avatars, muses to the forlorn soul in quest of deliverance from sin, banality, and time. Cornell’s frequent shame came only when he slipped into regarding these spiritual emissaries with mundane lust. (For this, Eddy provides stern admonition: ‘Thoughts unspoken are not unknown to the divine Mind. Desire is prayer …. ‘) But sacred inspiration is the very function fulfilled by Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, culminations of the troubadour tradition from which, according to Denis de Rougemont (one of Cornell’s most studied authors), the reigning modern conception of romantic love has evolved. That somewhat perverse amatory mode always entails an obstacle to passion-a rival, a social barrier, great distance in time or space, above all, death-yet affords thereby an inducement to greater devotion. Frustration intensifies desire, and renders ever clearer the object (and significance) of veneration …. ” And so on and so on, and on and on, until we are invited to believe that in creating his boxes and collages, Cornell “was engaged in a form of worship-communing with God by seeking to replicate, in small, unprepossessing ways, His elegant time-within-eternity handiwork.”

Reading Mr. Vine’s essay, I was reminded of a more secular analysis of Cornell’s art written some years ago by the painter Fairfield Porter, who was also a first-rate critic. “Cornell uses his elements as though they were words,” wrote Porter, “but what they allude to have no verbal equivalents.” By attempting to supply such verbal equivalents from the literature of Christian Science theology and other religious texts, Mr. Vine has burdened Cornell’s art with a mission and a meaning it cannot support. Comparisons with Dante and Petrarch only make matters worse, as does Mr. Vine’s attempt, elsewhere in the essay, to stir T.S. Eliot’s religious beliefs into the stew. Moreover, equating Cornell’s pathetic voyeurism with the glories of the troubadour tradition would be comical if the whole subject of the artist’s sex life wasn’t so utterly sad. It’s not as a saint or a sinner, but as an artist who found his vocation in Surrealist collage that Cornell makes a claim on our attention.

Fortunately for us, what Cornell made of that vocation is beautifully represented in the current exhibition at the Feigen gallery, and the best things about the Shadowplay volume accompanying the show are the high-quality reproductions of Cornell’s work and Ms. Hartigan’s sensitively written commentaries on the illustrations. They’re a far better guide to the complexity of Cornell’s aesthetic imagination than anything in Mrs. Eddy’s theology.

Joseph Cornell: The 100th Birthday remains on view at Richard L. Feigen and Company, 34 East 69th Street, through Feb. 23.