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.
. . . even though I did History of Art and taught it at degree level. Giovanni Battista Moroni was a sixteenth century Italian artist, a contemporary of Titian. There is an exhibition of his work at the RA until 25th January. I was entranced by it. It is mostly portraits with a few altarpieces and it reveals him to be one of the really great portrait painters of any era. What struck me most about them was their modernity. Portraits of this period – indeed, most periods – are about displays of power and wealth. These are too, of course, but take away the trappings and just look at the faces, and these could be people you might see walking walked Piccadilly. It is something about their expressions: a certain guardedness, an inwardness, that I hadn’t expected to see. I felt a real connection with them as individuals. A marvellous exhibition, quite small, and all the better for that in my view. It’s possible to see everything and really take it in. And Moira at ClothesinBooks.com if you are reading this, there are some fabulous clothes in there!