According to Museum of Modern Art curator and author of Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the Cinema, Jodi Hauptman, Cornell often cited Mary Webb’s book Precious Bane, stating, “The past is only the present become invisible and mute.... The dial turns... the yellow painted sun has set, and we, that were the new thing, gather magic as we go.” Indeed, this was the precise magic that Cornell believed to be intrinsic to youth, and particularly childhood toys. Quoting Stella Kamrsch, Cornell advocated that toys, much like museum displays, are “excluded from the open air battle of life,” in “some cozy corner... in the nursery of the imagination,” they are “flung into oblivion, but... in spite of their frailty, they are immortal.” For Cornell, the preservation of childhood was the key
to remembering the past (J. Hauptman, Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the Cinema, New Haven, 1999, p. 17-8).
Indeed, as with many Americans suffering during the great depression, Cornell was, too, nostalgic for earlier, better times. His first boxes, in particular, were reminiscent of youthful and idealized worlds that were characteristically filled with no small amount of whimsy. Standing out amongst such captivating works as Untitled (Snow Maiden) and Untitled (Tilly Losch)—both of 1933—La Bourboule, of the same year, presents a dreamscape ripe with the nostalgia that plagued the American zeitgeist of the 1930s. Here, Cornell has conjured a celestial, star-flecked setting, where reptiles and planets are being juggled by a small child-acrobat. Balancing a sea turtle and a salamander at the end of his pole, the child balances on a half-sphere, high above snow-capped mountains. Demonstrating his immense ability, the sphere slides along a titled wire stretched across the cosmos. Effortlessly balancing on the ball, while navigating along a tightrope, the child emerges as an elegant master of space.
Culled from a page of Kate Greenaway’s sentimental Victorian illustrations, the tiny acrobat clad in an Empire style costume of the Napoleonic era was certainly of particular interest to Cornell. Indeed, Greenway—like Cornell—was quite fond of collapsing eras within her own work, often looking to eras that preceded her in which to fashion her own characters while maintaining settings and mannerisms contemporaneous to her own. And yet, as with many of Cornell’s earliest constructions his visionary dossier, Untitled (The Crystal Cage: Portrait of Bernice), which chronicles the idea of six-year-old Bernice, Cornells young heroine of a ”fairyland of actuality and dream,” unlocks the artist’s inspiration to La Bourboule (J. Cornell, quoted in L. R. Hartigan, Joseph Cornell: Navigating the
Imagination, exh. cat., Peabody Essex Museum, 2007, p. 304).
For, in The Crystal Cage one of Bernice’s manifestations is the famous nineteenth century tightrope walker, Charles Blondin, whom Cornell, himself, had envisioned as a child walking a tightrope above Niagara Falls in the image “Child of Blondin”. In La Bourboule, Cornell wittily identifies this child-aerialist with Blondin by hand-tinting his hair bright yellow, and—as Analisa Leppanen- Guerra points out—in effect “blond-ing” him. (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. 103).
Undoubtedly, figures like Charles Blondin captivated Cornell, who was enthralled with such untouchable stars who exhibited elegance,
grace and, above all, whose performances were both marvelous and enchanting. And yet, Cornell’s earliest embodiments of this kind of motion driven spectacle manifested as youthful mechanisms of his childhood toys, rather than the grand homages that he would construct in the subsequent decades. In fact, when Cornell became an artist during the economically challenged 1930s, a general interest in toys, games and movies ran high as a source of financially accessible entertainment. Indeed, during this time, toys and machines shared a similar spirit of ingenuity that inspired new ways of both seeing and operating in the world—both for playful and
useful purposes. Evoking the artist’s won late Victorian childhood, Cornell reinterpreted parlor games as well as miniature theaters that had originally been designed as educational toys both to develop hand-eye coordination and teach elementary principles of science. Undeniably, for those living through the Depression these futuristic machines were a celebrated symbol of progress.