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Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Bergman Collection
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)

Untitled (Beehive, Thimble Forest)

Details
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Untitled (Beehive, Thimble Forest)
signed 'Joseph Cornell' (on a label affixed to the underside of the lid)
wood box construction--wood, paint, glass, thimbles, mirrors, pins, painted sawdust and glass marbles
3 3/4 x 7 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. (9.5 x 19.3 x 19.3 cm.)
Executed in 1948.
Provenance
B.C. Holland Gallery, Chicago
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1960
Literature
D. Ashton, A Joseph Cornell Album, New York, 1974, p. 179 (illustrated).
D. Waldman, Joseph Cornell, New York, 1977, pp. 82 and 118 (illustrated).
Exhibited
Pasadena Art Museum, An Exhibition of Works by Joseph Cornell, December 1966-February 1967, pp. 23 and 59 (illustrated).
New York, Museum of Modern Art; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery; Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle; Florence, Palazzo Pitti; Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris and Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Cornell, November 1980-March 1982, p. 150, no. 17 (illustrated). Exhibited in Chicago only, no. S-12.
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Dada and Surrealism in Chicago Collections, December 1984-January 1985, p. 129 (illustrated).
Special Notice

On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.
Post Lot Text
Obscure and enchanting, Joseph Cornell’s Beehive (Thimble Forest) is a rare construction that, through the use of a small aperture on the side of the cylindrical drum, allows the viewer to enter the enigmatic, bewitching, and infinite world of its maker. Described by Cornell on the occasion of his 1948 exhibition at the Copley Gallery in Beverly Hills as “a world of looking-glasses where one feels like Alice shrunk into the size of an insect,” these captivating boxes eerily combine the baroque attraction to the physical and metaphysical with the Victorian penchant for literary nonsense—as illustrated in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—and a spectacle of worldly curiosities. Lifting up the lid of this plywood Shaker box uncovers a fascinating world—five thimbles balanced on needles delightfully jingle as four colored spheres occupy the “forest” floor. Transforming the box into a crystalline cage, Cornell has positioned mirrored panels running along the sides of the construction creating a host to the endless glinting thimbles and rolling balls that dance in their reflections. Fashioning an infinity of images similar to the 18th century’s “perpetual galleries” or the zoëtropes of the 19th century, Cornell captures what Octavio Paz has described as “Thumbelina in gardens of reflections” in his poem on the New York artist’s “theater of the spirits” (O. Paz, “Objects and Apparitions,” D. Ashton, A Joseph Cornell Album, New York, 1974, p. 118).

Peering through the small hole positioned in the side of the box shrinks us like Alice as the reflections of the thimbles and spheres within are enlarged. Indeed, the mechanics of mirrors played an important role not only in the artist’s work, but in his daily life as well. An avid note taker, Cornell chronicled his habit of observing himself and the reflection of others in mirrors throughout his journals. For Cornell, mirrors possessed the capability of transforming mundane activities into grand spectacles. During an outing at Bickford’s he recorded, “reflection in the plate glass window or mirrors—a quickened mood when life is seen richer and fuller,” and during another visit, he spotted a “young teenager in mirror framed by doily of glass shelf & mother ordering turkey sandwich—the magic of the camera eye” (J. Cornell, quoted in A.P. Leppanen-Guerra, Children’s Stories and “child-time” in the Works of Joseph Cornell and the Transatlantic Avant-Garde, Surrey, 1988, p. 169). Cornell believed in the power of the mirror to transform dull reality into something rich and magical—to transport the individual somewhere else.

This idea, which Cornell applied both to his Thimble Forests as well as his day-to-day life, was not dissimilar to that of the mirrored interiors of 18th century “perpetual galleries” that were intended to hold small objects whose images would be reflected ad infinitum into the galleries’ mirrored walls. And yet, by rotating the box, Cornell’s construction enters the 19th century world of zoëtropes and praxinscopes. Designed as cylindrical drums, these optical toys lined with images illustrating sequential movements sprung to life when viewed through the slots or in mirrored reflections as the drum spins on an axis. And yet, not only highlighting the visual sensations of its earlier counterparts, Cornell’s Beehive (Thimble Forest) also adds the ancillary dimension of sound, for his box is meant to be carefully jiggled, causing the thimbles to jingle in concert. Like the instruments and toys of natural philosophy that extended the senses so that new things were observed, Cornell’s whimsical box stretches the visual into the auditory.

Demonstrating Cornell’s perception that mirrors possessed the ability to act as a portal into a liminal space, the artist noted in another journal entry under the heading “The Secret Life of the Mirror,” “Café mirror experience repeated ad infinitum.” Here again, the magic of mirrors is their ability to mask their two-dimensional surface with a three-dimensional depth. Standing between two mirrors, Cornell had observed the individual appears spun off into space. Cornell is delighted by that moment in which the flat mirror becomes infinite depth. This is the sort of “mirror magic” that Cornell attempted to reproduce in his own work, often directly linking this play of mirrors with Alice’s experience through the looking-glass. Indeed, this had not been the artist’s first attempt to recreate the magic of Wonderland, as he had previously exhibited several pieces evoking characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in his 1943 show Through the Big End of the Opera Glass at the Julien Levy Gallery—including American Rabbit, and A Pantry Ballet (for Jacques Offenbach), which were reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s “Lobster Quadrille.” Cornell transformed the flat surface of the mirror, not only by adjusting it to the curve of the circular box, but also by creating a dizzying infinitude of reflected forms. When these objects were exhibited at the Copley Galleries in 1948, Cornell directly linked their mirror-magic to Alice’s looking-glass through his description in the exhibition announcement. Using thimbles as trees, Cornell refers to the miniaturization of Alice once she has drunk from the magic bottle. And through the use of mirrors, Cornell draws the viewer into his tiny forest, at the same time as he multiplies our visage amongst the trees. His maze of thimble-trees replicates Alice’s meandering journey through Wonderland.
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