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United States of America 1903 – 1972

Untitled c.1950 Place made: New York, United States of America
Materials & Technique: sculptures, box construction

Primary Insc: signed verso l.r. on a fragment of pasted paper, ink, "Joseph Cornell", not dated
Dimensions: 31.0 h x 43.2 w x 10.3 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1973
Accession No: NGA 73.835
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

The phrase 'nostalgia of the sea' occurs frequently in Cornell's diaries, and was an emotion he hoped to crystallise in his Navigation boxes: 'nostalgia of the sea / we pick up a piece of wood on the seashore / there is infinite legend & romance about flotsam and jetsam — equivalent in mounting to retain this quality / immaculate aspect of something surviving a hundred years'.1

The wooden frame of the box is washed over with thin blue paint, as if scoured by seawater. The interior of the box is painted white, revealing the wood grain on the lower edge. The paintwork has a weathered look. A mysterious map occupies the back of the box. Areas of the map are washed over with a light blue watercolour similar to the outside frame of the box.2 Cornell owned a number of nineteenth-century books covering astronomy, physics and meteorology and it is likely that this map was taken from such a volume. On the underside of the roof of the box Cornell has pasted a section of a German map showing an expanse of the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom, a segment indicating names which evoke hidden corners of the world and sea routes not part of mainstream voyaging.

A series of four wooden cylindrical blocks hang on a metal bar suspended beneath the roof of the box. On these blocks Cornell has pasted cuttings. One illustrates the path of Halley's comet (on the right wall of the box is a similar cutting illustrating the path of a meteor). These cuttings came from a simple guide to astronomy in Cornell's possession.3 On another block is a cutting with the words 'Belt of Orion' and showing the three stars from this large constellation on the celestial equator. Cornell was totally familiar with the appearance, movements and mythical lore connected with this constellation; he was also aware of the historic influence of astronomy on mathematics and science. Another illustration, pasted upside down, indicates a tiny globe of the world, turned to show the United States with the name of one city — Chicago — singled out, and showing the Pole Star. Cornell noted in his diary: 'Cynosure — star near North Pole by which sailors steer'.4 On the fourth block is an illustration of a butterfly, an emblem of ethereality often used by Cornell, perhaps as an evocation of the ballet. A brass orbit-like ring hands from the bar between the cylinders.

On a ledge at the bottom of the box a series of five liqueur glasses stand in hollows cut into the wood. Four of the glasses contain a marble; the fifth contains a white spiral shell whose shape conspires with the small geometrical objects in the box. Neatly fitted into the base of the box is a shallow drawer pained white on the inside and covered with a glass pane. The drawer contains a sprinkled mass of dark blue powder, three small metal ball-bearings, two small shells (one a cowrie) and two narrow strips of cork cut as fine elongated rectangles. Against the white paint the blue powder appears like sea against sand, while the metal ball-bearings sparkle like stars. Cornell has drawn a thin grid of white paint on the glass covering the drawer, inspired perhaps by the lines of latitude and longitude on the map inside the box. The five vertical lines of the grid seem to align with the five liqueur glasses.

Cornell admired the detail and finish found in seventeenth-century Dutch still-lifes — the 'ultra-graphic microscopic magic-realism' was how he referred to the genre.5 The same precision entwined with emblematic meaning applies to this box.

Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.224.

  1. Archives of American Art, Joseph Cornell Papers, diaries, undated and 1930-72, source material files I, reel 1067, frame 427.
  2. Despite consultation with national mapping authorities in Australia and overseas, we were unable to identify the precise nature of this map.
  3. 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.
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  5. Archives of American Art, Joseph Cornell Papers, source material files I, reel 1067, frame 477.
  6. Undated diary entry, Archives of American Art, Joseph Cornell Papers, diaries, undated and 1930-72, reel 1062, frame 878.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra