Author/contact: Robert Hull
More than a half-century before there was Pinterest or any of the online applications devoted to the art of virtual collage, American artist Joseph Cornell was busy creating his own real assemblage works by hand. With snippets of magazines, pasted photographs and found objects, the universe of Cornell’s imagination was realized in meticulously composed masterworks born of everyday material.
“Joseph Cornell and Surrealism” – an international loan exhibition created in a collaborative effort between the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, a municipal museum of fine arts in the French city of Lyon, and The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia – opens Friday at the The Fralin Museum of Art, and will remain on view through June 8.
The landmark exhibition focuses on the American artistic genius’s works of the 1930s and ’40s, the decades that span Cornell’s emergence and maturation as a visual artist as well as the New York heyday of surrealism, an international art movement founded by André Breton in Paris in 1924.
Cornell (1903-1972) created collages and shadow boxes out of the basement of a house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, where he lived with his mother Helen and disabled brother, Robert. His shrines mixed images from popular culture (Hollywood B-movies) with the arcane (antique maps, Renaissance paintings).
Cornell was as urban archivist who explored a specific milieu – the city and its outlying suburbs – and turned his discoveries into homegrown art.
Surrealism shaped and molded Cornell through the first half of his career, opening his eyes to a new way of viewing and creating art.
To demonstrate the catalyzing effect of surrealism on Cornell’s art, the exhibition will present key works by Cornell alongside pieces by major figures associated with the movement, including Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Man Ray.
“Surrealism was the revelation that launched Cornell as an exhibiting artist,” said Matthew Affron, who co-curated the Cornell exhibit with Sylvie Ramond, director and chief curator at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. Affron, Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was formerly an associate professor in U.Va.’s McIntire Department of Art and The Fralin’s curator of modern art.
“Surrealism activated the development of Cornell's signature working method: collage and the related procedures of montage, construction and assemblage,” Affron said. “And it was to surrealism that Cornell owed his basic conception of the visual image as the product of poetic juxtaposition.”
The Cornell works on display will include the two- and three-dimensional formats for which he is best known: collages, found object pieces and shadow box constructions containing found objects.
Thanks to gifts from The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation and Buzz Miller (who worked in partnership with U.Va. alumnus Alan Groh to collect vanguard art for The Stable Gallery in New York during the 1950s), The Fralin Museum of Art already houses an impressive collection of Cornell’s works, including six boxes and 14 collages.
The other major strands of Cornell’s achievement will also receive in-depth examination during the exhibit’s run, including the artist’s engagement with photography, his groundbreaking work in collage cinema and the open-ended and nonlinear archives of printed materials that Cornell called his “explorations.”
Accompanying programming will include a symposium co-organized with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, guided tours, a poetry reading inspired by Cornell’s art and programs for children.
All events are free and open to the public. Visit The Fralin’s website for information.
On March 8, Affron will present a free public tour of the Cornell exhibit from 2 to 3 p.m. He will discuss the cultural scene – the world of painters, sculptors and photographers (many of them expatriate Europeans), art galleries and museums, and poets, critics and magazines – that shaped and molded Cornell through the first half of his career.
Events and programs related to the Cornell exhibit will be announced through its run.
“Joseph Cornell and Surrealism” is made possible through the support of the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Annenberg Foundation/GRoW, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Fralin Museum of Art Volunteer Board, the Arts Enhancement Fund sponsored by the Vice Provost for the Arts, U.Va. Arts Council: Enriching the Arts on Grounds, the Suzanne Foley Endowment Fund, Albemarle Magazine and Ivy Publications LLC’s Charlottesville Welcome Book. The exhibition is held under the auspices of the FRAME (French Regional American Museum Exchange) cultural cooperation network.
The Fralin Museum of Art, located at 155 Rugby Road, one block from the Rotunda, is open Tuesdays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
The Fralin Museum of Art’s programming is made possible by the support of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.