JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)
JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)
JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)
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JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)
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The Collection of Norman & Lyn Lear
JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)

Untitled (Medici Prince Variant)

JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)
Untitled (Medici Prince Variant)
signed 'Joseph Cornell' (on a paper label affixed to the reverse)
wood box construction — wood, glass, oil, gouache, plastic ball, jacks and printed paper collage
17 ¼ x 10 ¾ x 4 ½ in. (43.8 x 27.3 x 11.4 cm.)
Executed circa 1952.
Estate of the artist
The Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1987
M. Frank, "Architectural Digest Visits: Norman Lear," Architectural Digest, July 1992, p. 82 (illustrated).
Madrid, Fundación Juan March, Joseph Cornell, April-May 1984, n.p., no. 37 (illustrated).
New York, The Pace Gallery, Joseph Cornell, December 1986-January 1987.

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Joseph Cornell’s Untitled (Medici Prince Variant) is an exquisite example of the artist’s secretive and illusory world. Resembling a miniature Wunderkammer, or ‘room of wonder’, this particular example speaks to the artist’s curiosity in art, history, otherworldliness, and cosmology, as well as Romantic and Symbolic poetry. Widely read, and connected to many of the artistic luminaries of the early twentieth century, Cornell synthesized potent compositions both from his imagination and the real world. “Cornell collects notebooks, scraps, and the data of ephemera like a historian of a doomed culture,” notes scholar Alexandra Cortesi. “His boxes highlight the continuity of life with an awareness of the inevitability of age, destruction and decay. He ‘stages’ fantasies which are nevertheless symbols of concrete feeling. The work is built on a vast array of associations about transient experience and a past which is more real than the present” (A. Cortesi, “Joseph Cornell”, Artforum, Vol. 4, No. 8, April 1966, p. 30).

Set within a rectangular wooden box, Cornell’s composition is a carefully constructed collection of images and objects that exhibit the artist’s signature mysterious complexity. The central image is that of a young Renaissance boy dressed in somber clothing. Lining the sides are eight smaller copies of the main image cropped at bust length and arranged four on a side. Below these, Cornell has arranged a picture of a small teal cube, a painted disc, a plastic ball, and a solitary metal jack. These items rest on a blue shelf above an empty space within the bottom portion of the box. The image of the boy is a black-and-white reproduction of a full-length Renaissance portrait by the artist Sofonisba Anguissola which depicts Massimiliano Stampa, the third Marchese di Soncino. The painting was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1920s, but given the title, it is probable that Cornell came upon this likeness in an October 1939 issue of Art News where the painting was mistakenly identified as a picture of Pietro de’ Medici, the youngest son of Cosimo de Medici. He was entranced by the Italian portrait and used the work a number of times in his Medici Slot Machines.

Arguably the most important body of work, Joseph Cornell’s Medici series evokes the spiritual truths felt by the artist, merging art, science and the natural world. Created during the 1940s and 1950s, the series combines the artistic patronage of the Medici family and their indelible influence on Renaissance art with the trinkets and toys of Cornell’s own childhood in Nyack, New York. The choice of royal blue is at once a nod to the aristocratic subject and the artist’s favorite color combination. Through the use of humble materials, Cornell enshrines childhood nostalgia behind a securely sealed glass, like a museum portrait preserved behind its glazing.

Though his style and methods were largely his own, Cornell was consistently intrigued and inspired by many of the avant-garde artists working at home and abroad. Many of the leading European Surrealists, including Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Joan Miró were exhibited for the first time in America at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1931, and in 1932 these artists were again shown at Julien Levy Gallery in New York where Cornell saw them. Having struck up a relationship with the gallery the previous year, the artist was a frequent visitor and admirer of Levy’s programming. It is no surprise then that Cornell’s work took cues from the Surrealists, but he followed a different tact that borrowed from the assemblage methods of the Dadaists and leveraged nostalgia over eroticism. It is this interest in bringing together once beautiful objects and bits of the past that is highlighted in works like Untitled (Medici Prince Variant) and his other dioramic constructions.

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