Excerpt from Joseph Cornell's diary: "original inspiration of the bird store, windows, simplicity of magic, pet shop
Project: large or small cage with mobile effects: swinging perches, swinging rings, pieces of bird-feed, etc., etc.; consider exotic colourings (notebook/scrapbook); try for effect of prolonged motion from mobiles; use of scraps or straight pieces of mirror; touches of jetsam; ""used woods; "" springs; inner chamber of arranged mirrors for accentuated effect of depth; for general notes: paste patches against white background, then repaint thick white from here develop
Directions: clean and abstract; "lived in" mussy aspect" (J. Cornell, from his Diaries, quoted in L. Roscoe Hartigan, R. Vine, R. Lehrman & W. Hopps, Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, New York & London, 2003, p. 126).
Untitled (Aviary), executed in 1950-52, forms part of one of Joseph Cornell's most celebrated series. The Aviaries were inspired by the chance discovery of a shop selling exotic pets that he passed during one of his forays into New York City. Cornell would spend hours wandering past antiquarian bookstores and other shops, searching for materials to acquire and accumulate, sometimes to incorporate into his art. The sight of the colorful birds in the window may have come as a surprise to him, used as he was to the more static, dusty world of the antiques shops. Certainly, the exotic appearance of the birds appealed to the imaginary tourist in him. These rare and foreign species from far-flung, exotic shores implied the travel and tourism that so fascinated him, yet which he had never known at first-hand, having travelled only limitedly in the United States. His knowledge of the world abroad relied on guidebooks, literature, maps and his own imagination. The cockatoo in Untitled (Aviary) appears as some trophy of a fantastic voyage, as is emphasised by the stamp from Mozambique, which depicts a tropical fish, lending the piece a flash of exotic color. Cornell had long been fascinated by birds, and even before the Aviaries, they had occasionally featured in his work. However, his pet store revelation completely changed his focus and resulted in an entire series that combined a strangely austere aesthetic with playfulness and longing.
The garden at his home on Utopia Parkway in Flushing boasted a quince tree, flowering vines, bird bath, wooden armchair and bird feeding table. He took daily delight in feeding his avian visitors, making notes of their performances in his diaries. These often contained personifications that are at once elaborate and revealing, and which indicate his fascination and identification with birds, for instance the following:
"starling glistened bright in the sunshine atop the garage, reminding me of the 16-18 or so strutting in the backyd last week fighting for the bread, pecking in the grass. This morning the lone bird a shining symbol in his glistening black coat, last week the flock evoking the 'congresses' of Indian Summer before the trees were cut down. Whistlings of a jocose nature and all the atmosphere these birds bring with their absurd comical struttings and vocal bustlings" (J. Cornell's diary, 6 August 1951, from the Archives of American Art, reproduced at www.aaa.si.edu).
This anthropomorphisation extends, in Untitled (Aviary), to Cornell himself. The caged bird recalls the artist, limited in his movements, unable to fly the coop, trapped on the material plane in Flushing. Yet longing desire to escape the confines of the cage, is palpable in this work, autobiographically condensing Cornell's frustrations at the limits on his life: his obligations to his ageing mother and invalid brother, Robert. At the same time, his adherence to Christian Science may be reflected in this sense of entrapment on the illusory physical plane as opposed to the infinite freedom of the imagination, of the ineffable and, ultimately, of the spiritual. Cornell's cages are infinitely delicate yearnings for release.
The foreign lands that were so much the focus of Cornell's poetic dreams and desires, and from which this bird appears to have come, were in his imagination, and were all the more lyrical and universal for it. They appeal directly to the viewer's own imagination and to a sense of childlike wonder. The strange pegs and punctured board at the back of Untitled (Aviary), emphasize this, creating the impression of some strange, arcane game of strategy. The glass impedes our involvement in this game, and more pegs are in the drawer at the bottom, implying that play is not yet over and crucially begging the question: who is playing? Is this a game in which the bird itself is involved? Is the artist competing with the bird? Is the artist the bird? Untitled (Aviary) is rich with magic and mystery. Its composition and juxtapositions imply a narrative, an internal logic, but it is one that hovers tantalisingly out of reach. This is an insight into the strange, whimsical and poetic alternative dimension of Cornell's own personal world, in which different rules have been codified and crystallised, evoking an entire universe of the fantastical, the wonderful, the unattainable.