Joseph CORNELL, Untitled (for Stephanie) Enlarge 1 /1

On display on Level 2


United States of America 1903 – 1972

Untitled (for Stephanie) c.1945 Place made: New York, United States of America
Materials & Technique: sculptures, box construction

Primary Insc: signed l.r. on the back of the box on two fragments of paper with Latin text, paint, "Joseph Cornell", not dated
Dimensions: 48.9 h x 36.2 w x 12.7 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1973
Accession No: NGA 73.834
Subject: Art style: Surrealism
Image rights: © Joseph Cornell/VAGA. Licensed by Viscopy
  • the artist;
  • by whom given to his sister, Elizabeth Cornell Benton, in 1964;
  • bought by Fourcade, Droll Inc, New York, May 1973;
  • from whom bought by the Acquisitions Committee of the Australian National Gallery, December 1973

This box belongs to the series of Aviary boxes that Cornell worked on from the early 1940s through to the mid-1950s. The surfaces inside this box are painted over with white enamel paint. Within the box a wooden alcove is constructed on the left side. A parrot, made from a cut-out illustration mounted on a wooden backing, is perched within the alcove. The edge of the bird is painted bright yellow. Inside the alcove are three mirrors. Only the largest of these, full-length against the back wall, comes to view and reflects the bird. In the right corner of the box Cornell has placed a strip of mirror at a 45-degree angle which catches the bird's reflection when viewed from certain angles and also reflects the 'hidden' mirrors inside the alcove. This interplay of mirrors creates an illusion of spatial depth, which seems to recede beyond the framework of the box.

Into the right lower corner of the box Cornell has fitted the mechanism of a music box which plays the nursery rhyme tune 'Twinkle, twinkle little star'. The little handle of the music box is accessible through an opening covered by a hinged lid on the right side of the box. Underneath the lid Cornell has pasted a cutting from a star map that features three of his favourite northern hemisphere constellations — Cassiopeia, Perseus and Auriga. Cornell was familiar with the legends associated with these names and repeated these constellations on other boxes.

A piece of string attached to the mechanism of the music box loops a bar suspended at the top of the box, so that as the handle of the music box rotates, the bar turns. A decorative strip of wood is glued along the top wall of the box. Beneath this strip Cornell has pasted a cutting from a planetary guide.

The back of the box is covered with pages cut from an 1807 publication of an Italian mock-heroic epic poem entitled Il Malmantile Racquistato by Perlone Zipoli, a Florentine painter and sometime poet who used the pseudonym Lorenzo Lippi. This poem is a playful parody of Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberate, with acontemporary message lamenting the decline in manners and morals.

Cornell dedicated many of his boxes to his heroes and close friends. In this case, 'For Stephanie' is inscribed on a strip of masking tape tinted with green wash and stuck on the lower right corner at the back of the box. This dedication is probably to Stefani Kiesler (1897-1963), wife of the architect-sculptor and designer Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965), with whom Cornell was well acquainted.1

Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.218.

  1. Stefani and Frederick Kiesler emigrated to New York from Vienna in 1926. They became acquainted with Cornell during the 1940s and often visited him at Utopia Parkway. It was Frederick Kiesler who introduced Marcel Duchamp to Joseph Cornell, taking him to his home studio. During this time Kiesler also induced Cornell to work with film. Mrs Lillian Kiesler, who survives Frederick Kiesler, kindly offered this biographical information, also suggesting in her correspondence that 'since Cornell was a courtly man, it is no surprise that he would dedicate a work to Stephanie Kiesler' (Lillian Kiesler, correspondence with Gallery, 7 March 1989).

    Stephani Kiesler, under the pseudonym 'Pietro de Saga', contributed series of images to the Dutch avant-garde magazine De Stijl, for example Dactyloplastique 1925 (De Stijl no.77, vol.7 series xiii, 1926), to illustrate short pieces of prose text by I.K. Bonset.

    Although there is a discrepancy in the spelling of 'Stefani', it is possible to deduce that Cornell would have been referring to Stefani Kiesler. On an undated diary page (Archives of American Art, Joseph Cornell papers, diaries undated and 1930-72, reel 1059, frame 365) he wrote the name 'Steffi Kiesler'. Stefani Kiesler was normally referred to as 'Steffi'. On another page he corrects his spelling of 'Steffi' with the name 'Stephanie' (Archives of American Art, Joseph Cornell papers, diaries undated and 1930-72, reel 1059, frame 365). The anglicised spelling would have often be used for her name after her emigration.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra