It has been a year of marvellous exhibitions – Sargent, Ravilious, the Impressionists at the National Gallery – but there isn’t one I’ve enjoyed more than Joseph Cornell at the RA. Cornell (1903-1972) was a textile salesman living in Queens when he encountered the Surrealists in a Manhattan Gallery during his lunch hour. He started to make his own surrealist objects from found materials – cuttings from old prints and newspapers, boxes and other objects found in junk shops. Despite his lack of training he was not a naive or outsider artist. He was much admired by other surrealists like Duchamp and had considerable success in his lifetime. He never left the US, barely even left New York State, and lived with his mother and brother, who suffered from cerebral palsy, until their deaths in the 1960s.
I’ve been intrigued by him for a while, but had never seen more than one or two of his works at a time until now. This exhibition bowled me over. His work is not about the external world, it’s about memory and nostalgia and the worlds we have in our heads. It made me think a little of Proust. Cornell admired Max Ernst and the other surrealists, but his own work doesn’t have the sinister elements and the disturbing eroticism that theirs sometimes has. Instead it has an innocence and a poignancy. He himself referred to it as ‘white magic.’ He was the real thing alright: a true artist.