Joseph Cornell's boxes evoke intriguing dream worlds, inviting viewers to explore the secrets that unfold within them. As Cornell described in a diary note of 1957, working on his boxes involved "imaginative pictorial research akin to image-making of poetry" (J. Cornell, quoted in Joseph Cornell, New York, 1980, p. 115). Untitled (Caravaggio Boy) is a classic box construction of 1953 that draws on diverse themes that mattered greatly to Cornell, from theater and penny arcades to maps and old master painting, all poetically juxtaposed.
Untitled (Caravaggio Boy) belongs to one of Cornell's most enchanting series, the Medici Slot Machines. Begun in the early 1940s, this series of box constructions contrasts Renaissance and baroque portraits of children with collaged elements reminiscent of boardwalk games and slot machines. The Medici Slot Machines often include moveable parts, such as the marble in the present work, which can slide back and forth in the lower compartment. Cornell intended this work to be handled, inviting the viewer to play. Yet rather than being an actual game, this enigmatic moving component instead underlines psychological complexity
The Caravaggio boxes appear to date from 1950 to 1955, and the central image is based on a painting, called Head of a Boy, purchased by the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, in 1930. Published in their Avery Memorial Caralogue of 1934 as being by Caravaggio (1569-1608), the attribution was changed in 1958, by the museum, to "Folower of Caravaggio, French School, 17th Century." It is likely that Cornell was aware of the change but, as his own attribution to Caravaggio was by that time so deeply woven into the imagery of the series, simply ignored it. The Formal layout of Untitled (Caravaggio Boy), taking the portion above the glass shelf and following the heavier white sight lines and side compartments containing the miniature portraits of him, suggest the floor plan of the Strozzi Palace in Florence, the part-time residence of the Medici family, a courtyard framed by four compartments on the east and west sides and five compartments on the north and south.
Untitled (Caravaggio Boy) exemplifies Cornell's works of the 1950s, in which he refinedshis collages, distilling them into compositions that became increasingly sophisticated and melancholy. Cornell used blue glass, a visual effect borrowed from the daguerreotype. This blue field brings to mind abstract painters such as Mark Rothko (who was indeed a friend of Cornell's), providing an abstract element that poetically merges with the diverse assemblage's figural aspects. Cornell covered the exterior of Untitled (Caravaggio Boy) with old maps, which he collected on his frequent visits to the used bookshops on New York's Fourth Avenue. The maps he chose for Untitled (Caravaggio Boy) evoke the Italian master, as they represent Rome, the city in which he worked, and Assisi, where Caravaggio was born, which relates to his portrait of St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy.
The back of Untitled (Caravaggio Boy), like several other boxes in Cornell's work, is covered with the text fragments from the work of the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius (First Century, B.C.) and his unfinished poem "On the Nature of Things" in which he defends the notion of the infallibility of the senses and the absolute nature of physical matter, negating the idea of immortality and a universe governed by divine order. The use of blue glass is a visual effect borrowed from the daguerreotype that comes into play across the facade of the box. Standing in front of the box, the image of Bernardino is quite clear, but as one moves away, it seems to fade. The last things seen are the doubled lines of the double Latin cross, heaviest and whitest of the sight lines in the box. The sight lines which provided this Renaissance boy with a bridge from the Strozzi Palace to the Church of San Lorenzo, are now eclipsed in a parting Cross of Benediction. It is a formal effect which is found in many of Cornell's blue-tinted Renaissance Boxes, and it is implicit in all of his constructions. The last words are those of Mrs. Eddy, noted by Cornell in a diary entry of September 17th, 1952, in which he refers to "overshadowing of human sense of time space & beauty."
Despite having little formal art training, Cornell explored the expressive potential of box constructions since the early 1930s, when he rapidly rose to fame on the avant-garde New York art scene in the company of the Surrealist expatriates who had recently moved to New York. His shadow boxes effectively incite child-like wonder, offering on an intimate scale works that evoke the cabinents of curiousity and Wunderkammers of past centuries. As Cornell put it, the "Shadow boxes become poetic theatres of settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime" (ibid., p. 12). Although Cornell was inspired by Max Ernst's collages and was included in landmark exhibitions such as Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern art in 1936, he did not associate himself formally with Surrealism. He was friends with Marcel Duchamp and many other Surrealists, yet he carved out a highlight individual place in the art world, dedicating himself for several decades to creating his poetic box constructions in his home on Utopia Parkway in Queens.
Cornell had long passionately loved film. He collected vintage films and held special screenings, and in the 1930s he created his own collage-like films from found footage. In the 1950s, however, Cornell became more intensely involved with film, as he began to direct original footage, collaborating with well-known filmmakers such as Rudy Burckhardt and Stan Brakhage. Untitled (Caravaggio Boy) directly relates to Cornell's deep engagement with film in its use of repeated images of the old master painting in a manner that evokes a film strip. These passages imply film, alluding to movement in tension with stillness. The frame within the present work evokes both the frames of old master paintings and the design of early moving picture machines displayed in penny arcades, which invited viewers to turn a crank and peep through a hole.
Cornell appropriated a found image, and presented it in a serial format that recalls a film strip, presaging the serial format silk-screens that Warhol created in the following decade. Indeed, Warhol shared Cornell's lifelong fascination with film. Like Cornell, Warhol would also adapt famous old master paintings such as the Mona Lisa, placing them into new contexts to transform the viewer's experience. Warhol greatly admired Cornell, and in 1963 visited him at his studio on Utopia Parkway, along with Robert Indiana and James Rosenquist. Cornell profoundly explored collage and film, and the nexus of these two mediums would continue to resonate with many artists in the Assemblage movement in the 1960s and beyond.