'Dime-Store Alchemy': Joseph Cornell's Surrealist Boxes

Joseph Cornell is often considered the first and greatest American surrealist, said to have influenced creators as diverse as iconic French dadaist Marcel Duchamp and beloved speculative-fiction novelist William Gibson. An artist and filmmaker, he is perhaps best-known for the intricate, mysterious boxes he created druing the 1930s through 1960s -- bizarre and beautiful assemblages of dime-store tchotchkes and remnants of once-beautiful objects, placed in meticulously hand-crafted small cabinets. Yesterday marks the paperback release of Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, a fascinating long-out-of-print book that explores the eccentric genius of the artist through the insightful and often obsessive lens of the poet Charles Simic, who examines eight of Cornell's most remarkable boxes. It is, more than anything, a meditation on beauty and the art of imagination. Simic's writing itself is a metaphor for Cornell's thoughtful collages, stitching together elements of texts by some of the artist's favorite poets and authors. (Sound familiar?)

When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are our best guides. In writing the pieces for the book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image would turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same. --Charles Simic

L'Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode, cours élémentaire d'histoire naturelle, 1940

Untitled (Pink Palace), ca. 1946-1948

Untitled (Bebe Marie), early 1940s

Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), 1936

Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945

What makes Dime-Store Alchemy most exceptional is the elegant parallel between the poetry of Cornell's work and that of Simic's narrative interpretation of it, at once an embodiment of and commentary on the power of remix in creation.

Images: WebMuseum, Paris.

TEMPLATEBrainPickings04.jpg

This post also appears on Brain Pickings.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.

Video

'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

Video

What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM

More in Entertainment

Just In