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United States of America 1903 – 1972

Untitled (Owl box) c.1946-48 Place made: New York, United States of America
Materials & Technique: sculptures, box construction

Primary Insc: signed reverse lower corner on label, ink,"Joseph Cornell", not dated
Dimensions: 36.2 h x 29.2 w x 16.5 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1980
Accession No: NGA 80.3927
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?;
  • Mr Denis Hurley;
  • from whom bought by Castelli Feigen Corcoran, New York, September 1976;
  • from whom bought by the Australian National Gallery, October 1980

Cornell worked on owl boxes from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, keeping track of them in his diaries. The entry for 15 April 1946 reads: 'discovery for the owl box in progress a particularly fine example of rotted tree from which a piece of bark and clinging trailing shrubbery branches had fallen. Took off by the handful the wood from outer part of trunk which was in a powder state — lined box that evening …' On 2 August 1947 he writes: 'moonlight in kitchen illuminating objects with an ineffable softness - enhanced by being reflected from snow'. A month later (2 September 1947) he notes: 'owls — crystal patterns on garage windows — owl box glass patterns'. One suspects that the owl, whose nocturnal habits provide a metaphor for solitude, had a special significance for Cornell. Cornell created an iconography for the owl boxes quite different from that of the other bird boxes. In the owl boxes he constructed diorama-type settings, referring to these as 'woodland habitats' or 'deep forest interiors'.

The front of this box is sealed with two glass panes. The outer pane is clear glass while the inside pane is blue rippled glass. The owl is a paper illustration glued onto a plywood backing mounted centrally in the box. Inside the box a plywood frame supports pieces of dry wood which surround the owl. Several streaks of gold paint are dripped onto the bark and onto the back wall. Wood dust adhered with glue, a technique used in making scenery for model train sets, covers exposed areas of the inside plywood frame. Small pieces of dried lichen dyed red, green and yellow are glued to the top of this frame. A rubber lizard and a rubber spider are attached to the clumps of dried wood. A secret world of undergrowth surrounds the owl.

At the top of the box is a lamp-fitting hidden by the plywood frame. Through the rippled glass pane the habitat becomes visible only when this lamp is switched on. The habitat takes on a soft blue tint as a result of the blue glass against which the eyes of the owl are yellow and bright. The owl appears as if seated in its bower in shimmering distant moonlight.

Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.222.

  1. Despite consultation with national mapping authorities in Australia and overseas, we were unable to identify the precise nature of this map.
  2. It has not been possible to establish the actual title of this publication. However, among the Cornell papers there are some loose pages from this book from which an illustration has been cut which matches the one on this box (Archives of American Art, Joseph Cornell Papers, source material files II, reel 1068, frame 1101). A duplicate of the original page identifies the image with the label 'Path of Halley's Comet'. There is also a duplicate of the meteor illustration from the same book on the same reel 1068, frame 167.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Cornell produced a series of owl boxes between the early 1940s and the mid-1950s, often creating these little ‘deep forest interiors’ at night: 'moonlight in kitchen illuminating objects with an ineffable softness ', he wrote in his diary. While birds were a common feature of Cornell’s boxes, his owl constructions have a particular character. As in this example, Cornell placed his owls in dark, forest dioramas constructed of pieces of bark, shrubbery and other fragments. Cornell understood these boxes as memento mori: as well as representing wisdom, the owl also carries strong cultural associations with death.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra