The Cinema of Joseph Cornell
By Robert Stalker
Between 1936 and 1968, artist Joseph Cornell made approximately 28 films, some in color, some in black and white, none over twenty minutes long, and all silent but for the occasional musical soundtrack. With the possible exception of Rose Hobart (1936), Cornell’s first, these films remain virtually unknown outside of a coterie of Cornell scholars and art historians otherwise devoted mostly to the hauntingly enigmatic, small-scale “memory boxes” on which the artist’s reputation primarily rests. While the years since Cornell’s death in 1978 have seen the appearance of a full-scale biography, several monographs, and a host of important exhibitions, the increasing critical interest in his work has done little to bring a wider audience to Cornell’s films. This neglect is unfortunate, for Cornell’s films engage many of the same issues he pursued in his boxes. Indeed, Cornell’s genius as a filmmaker was to introduce into film the very same readymade or found aesthetic that governed the creation of his boxes, collages, and assemblages, a strategy so bold and prescient as to justify avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s estimation of Cornell as “a monumental figure” in film history. And, like his box constructions, Cornell’s films touch on matters of loss and preservation, memory and desire, and raise important questions regarding the cinematic medium’s relation to time and the archive.
Joseph Cornell in his kitchen, c. 1965. Photographer unknown. Courtesy: Private Collection.
The issues surrounding the archive fundamentally inform Cornell’s aesthetics and working methods. In his family home in Queens, where he lived his entire adult life with his mother and brother, Cornell amassed a vast private archive—“a clearinghouse,” as he called it, “for dreams and visions . . . childhood regained”—comprised of dossiers, memorabilia, and outmoded artifacts devoted to such subjects as film stars (Garbo, Bacall, Monroe), ballerinas (Fanny Cerrito, Tamara Touvanova), popular entertainers (the singer Raquel Meller), and nineteenth-century poets (Emily Dickinson, Goethe, Hölderlin) to name but a few of the less eccentric and arcane subjects found among Cornell’s immense collections. From these archives, Cornell culled the materials that went into his box constructions. Much like Marcel Duchamp’s own “portable museum” Boite-en-Valise [Box in a Valise] (1941), which Cornell helped assemble, these small, elegant boxes function as miniature archives, housing the precisely arranged collages of old photos, trinkets, and baubles the artist collected on his haunts of second-hand stores throughout New York City. Of the hundreds of boxes Cornell created, many of them, such as Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (1944-46), Fanny Cerrito in Ondine (c.1947), Untitled [Caravaggio Boy] (c. 1950), or Untitled [Medici Princess] (c.1952-54), to name a few, explicitly strive to recover what Cornell was fond of calling “the light of other days.”
Cornell’s film work shares with his work in assemblage a fascination with memory and the recoverability of the past, discovering in film the potential to set down, as he called it in a 1946 letter to French film historian Claude Sebanne, "a record Atget-like." And, just as the sheer immensity and inscrutability of Atget’s photographic archive seems to displace commonly held ideas about originality and authorship, the "found" aesthetic that Cornell imported into his filmmaking complicates notions of individual creativity. Remarkably, not only did Cornell not shoot any of his own films, he never even learned how to work a movie camera. Instead, Cornell commissioned other directors and photographers, such as Brakhage, Rudy Burckhardt, and Larry Jordan, to shoot the sequences he later edited. Or, even more ground-breaking, he re-edited in his own idiosyncratic way “found footage,” creating highly personal film collages. It is this latter technique of manipulating existing footage—an approach to filmmaking that Cornell may have initiated—that he deployed for his first, and no doubt most famous, film, the haunting Rose Hobart.
Having purchased from a New Jersey warehouse for a ridiculously low price a print of the early grade-B “talkie”East of Borneo (1931), Cornell took the film home, eliminated the original soundtrack and dialogue, and replaced it with Nestor Amaral’s jaunty composition “Holiday in Brazil.” More radically still, he re-edited the original feature film’s running time down to approximately 19 minutes, focusing the viewer’s attention now almost exclusively on the film’s somewhat androgynous female lead, the actress Rose Hobart. Slowing the projection speed down to 16 frames per second (the standard speed for silent film) and projecting the film through a deep blue glass plate, Cornell created something of a cinematic equivalent to the homages to actresses, divas, and performers of times past in his box constructions such as Legendary Portrait of Greta Garbo [destroyed] or in his magazine article entitled “Enchanted Wanderer [excerpt for a Journey Album for Hedy Lamarr]” published in View (Dec. 1941/Jan. 1942). The film, however, raises interesting questions about just what is being archived.
From left: Stills from "Nymphlight," Rose Hobart, Legend for Fountains, "Angel."
The opening shot of a crowd gazing skyward announces one of the film's key motifs, that of vision. The film that follows, comprised mostly of close-ups of Rose Hobart, emerges as a meditation on the seductions of film stardom, dwelling on themes of distance and desire, fascination and unattainability. The actress’s closely cropped hair and masculine attire—riding gear, trench coat, mannish suit and hat—recall other androgynous actresses in Cornell’s work, while the recurring "proscenium shots" of Rose—framed in doorways or emerging from behind curtains or netting—also invite comparisons to his boxes, whose photographs of stars and performers were often placed behind glass, tiny window frames, or lattice-work. In contrast, however, to the materiality and “touchability” of the boxes (which were, after all, meant to be picked up and handled by the viewer), the projected film’s immateriality and temporal unfolding suggest that Rose Hobart attempts not to archive a tangible object but rather to preserve or arrest one of the more peculiar and evanescent experiences of cinematographic modernity—the moviegoer’s visual possession of the Hollywood star.
In addition to using found footage in Rose Hobart and other “collage films,” such as “Bookstalls” (late 1930s), “Jack’s Dream” (c. 1930s), and “Children’s Party” (c. 1938), Cornell also hired others to shoot original footage for him. Nevertheless, the graininess, abrupt cutting, and other “amateurish” touches of these films significantly give them the look of found footage. Like Rose Hobart, several of these films seem to take as their subject the archiving of fleeting aesthetic experiences. Two of the most beautiful of these, A Legend for Fountains (Cornell’s favorite of his films) and Nymphlight, both from 1957 and shot by Rudy Burkhardt, take New York City as their primary subject. Borrowing its title from a Lorca poem, A Legend for Fountains (b/w; 19 ½ min.), for example, follows Cornell’s assistant Suzanne Miller through some of Cornell’s favorite neighborhoods in Little Italy and the Lower East Side. With her trench coat and short hair, the somewhat androgynous Miller appears to function in the film as a female stand-in for Cornell, wandering the city streets, gazing in shop windows, engaged in just the kind of flanêriethat Cornell himself so often enjoyed. The recurring images of the actress walking through corridors and doorways suggests that Miller, in contrast to Rose Hobart, is not so much the aesthetic object as the subject of the aesthetic gaze. Lingering in some of Cornell’s favorite stomping grounds, Miller seems to “collect” aesthetic experiences from just the kind of banal objects and situations that inspired Cornell’s art—shop windows, birds in flight, and children at play.
Nymphlight (color; 7 ½ min.) provides an interesting counterpoint to A Legend for Fountains. Where Legendembraces urban flanêrie, Nymphlight, shot in another of Cornell’s favorite haunts, Bryant Square Park behind the New York Public Library, contemplates the urban pastoral. Shot in color, and to be accompanied according to Cornell by Claude Debussy’s “Cloches à travers les feuilles,” the film follows twelve-year old Gwen Thomas, daughter of painter Yvonne Thomas, on a leisurely stroll through the park. The opening shot of the film, a flickering glimpse through the parapets of a little stone wall of Gwen running, announces the film’s key theme: the evanescence of aesthetic experience. Dressed in a white party dress and carrying a slightly sullied and broken parasol, Gwen leisurely strolls through the park, taking in the park’s fountains, birds, and passersby. The birds in flight (one of Cornell’s major motifs) may suggest poetic transcendence or the fleetingness of aesthetic experience, while the focus on fountains (so common in Cornell’s films) may teasingly evoke Duchamp’s own Fountain (1917), the retrieval of aesthetic experience from the most unlikeliest of sources being the cornerstone of Cornell’s aesthetics.
The image of the fountain returns in “Angel” (1957; color; 3 min.), one of Cornell’s most poignant films. Dedicated, as Cornell said, to his friend, the painter Pavel Tchelichew, who had recently died, the film offers a rather moving meditation on mortality. Comprised of static shots of a statue of an angel and a fountain in a Flushing cemetery, the film’s elegant and quiet close-ups against an expanse of blue sky of the statue’s solid yet partly decaying marble brilliantly capture a sense both of the earthly and time-bound and the unworldly and eternal. The film’s stylistically innovative dissociation of moving image from moving subject (a technique Cornell also largely deploys in “Centuries of June” from the same year) anticipates by several years the daring cinematic experiments of Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963) and Empire (1964), foregrounding duration, in contrast to movement, as cinema’s true subject.
Speaking of the difference between still photography and film, the surrealist Jean Cocteau once called attention to the fact that in film, “time courses through” the object. Cornell’s films appear particularly sensitive to this reality, exploiting the medium’s unique relation to time to construct a cinematic archive. His beautifully enigmatic films thus provide not only a provocative counterpoint to his work in assemblage but also a critical chapter in the history of American avant-garde cinema.
Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.