Setting out to demonstrate the scientific principles of liquid and air, Soap Bubble Set of 1939 is the first of only three variants on the soap bubble set that places the clay pipe within a dark velvet theater. Seemingly bewitched, softly illuminated glass disks float out of the claw foot chamber and elegantly drift upward through the theater. Suspended within each glass bubble, Cornell has pasted Photostat copies of illustrations from science texts. While the poised images of shells, coral, crystals and cellular creatures seemingly discard the overt references to astronomy that were ever present in Cornell's first Soap Bubble Set in favor of natural history, the 1939 variant introduces a new spiritual order in Cornell's work in which the cosmos is still very much in play.
"Cornell adopted Christian Science as a set of conventions and was interested in Renaissance views of Christianity," Walter Hopps explained, "but he was outside of that, too. He also looked at the heavens in a way that scientists do. He had an extraordinary romantic faith in the innocence of children and he liked animals in certain ways, but a major part of his spirituality was bound up in the poetics of where science leads" (W. Hopps, Joseph Cornell: Shadow Play Eterniday, London, 2003, p. 82). Indeed, Cornell's archives indicate that to achieve this effect he pulled inspiration for his soap bubble sets from a wide range of sources, from the Victorian scientific literature of C.V. Boys, Soap Bubbles and the Forces Which Mold Them, to advertisements for Pear's Soap, and a Christian Science Monitor illustration of the seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas painting by Jacob van Oost, Boys Blowing Bubbles. In fact, pictorially erudite Cornell, who was most familiar with the Dutch tradition of memento mori, used the imagery of bubbles--or lack thereof, as if to signify the memory bubbles long since burst--in his soap bubble sets to trigger his own awareness of fragility and mortality. Housing the origins of life, the bubbles in this 1939 construction relay the delicate journey of all existence, and serve as a metaphor for the transitory nature of life and the vanity of all earthly things.
Further exploring the symbolic relationship between science and spirituality in the 1939 variant, art historian, Kirsten Hoving explains:
"Symbols of eternity, seashells had long-standing spiritual associations as metaphors for the empty residue left behind when the soul departs the material body. But they also offered a conceptual link to Newton, who, in a line Cornell later transcribed in his notes, described his scientific pursuits as 'only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smooth pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of Truth lay all undiscovered before me." And surely Cornell knew William Wordsworth's description of Newton as a "voyager through strange seas of thought alone" (K. Hoving, Joseph Cornell and Astronomy: A Case for the Stars, Princeton, 2009, p. 50-51).
Gracefully floating amidst a dark background analogous to the vast ocean of space, the translucent spiral seashells, for Cornell, conjured the spiral nebulae and unfurling universes that were concurrently being studied by astronomers like Edwin Hubble. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of microscopic organisms and telescopic outlooks paralleled contemporary research that sought to explain the cosmos by studying the actions of atoms.
An important year in the artist's career, 1939 saw the arrival of the New York World's Fair, which was situated only moments from the artist's home in Flushing, Queens. Writing to Charles Henri Ford shortly before the 1939 World Fair opened, Cornell expressed his immense joy at finding that it was going to be held in Flushing, on his own turf, news literally too good to be true: "I have been going by the old garbage dumping grounds for twenty years, and thought it just a plaisanterie when I read in the papers that the Fair site would be established there" (J. Cornell, quoted in D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, London, 1997, p. 96). Not only would the variety and juxtapositions of the troves of objects both in Cornell's boxes and his cellar be appearing in immense scale in the form of the Fair, but his fascination of travel would be assuaged: many nations had pavilions showcasing their culture, meaning that the exotic nations that he had hitherto known only second hand through guidebooks, maps and his friends were now on his doorstep. Visiting the fair on several occasions, Cornell was deeply awed by all fair offered.
The Fair proved fortuitous for Cornell for several reasons. First, it allowed the artist to purchase what could only seem like a lifetime supply of Dutch clay pipes, which would be included in his soap bubble sets throughout the remainder of his life. While this constant within the series recalls Man Ray's Ce qui manque à nous tous, 1936 as well as René Magritte's famous La trahison des images, which was shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in January 1936 during the artist's first solo show in America, it was in fact another painting first introduced to Cornell at the World's Fair which resonated more profoundly with the soap bubble sets--Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin's Soap Bubbles. On loan from Washington D.C., the Chardin also had a sister painting, which currently hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. More so, the Masterpieces of Art exhibition, where the painting hung, contained many more masterpieces that Cornell would both grow to admire and use in his own work, most notably Bronzino's Portrait of Fernando de' Medici, Perugino's Portrait of Piero de' Medici and Raphael's Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours.
And yet, at this time, most compelling for Cornell must have been the Fair's unwavering emphasis on modern science, which offered an intriguing counterpart to his fascination with the natural philosophies of the past. Of particular intrigue to Cornell would have been the demonstrations of astonishing new advances in astronomy technology. Together with the opening of the Hayden Planetarium in New York in 1935, the displays at the 1939 World's Fair offered New Yorkers unprecedented opportunities to learn about the cosmos. Cornell's first Soap Bubble Sets and its early variants were created within the context of intense public interest in cutting-edge science and technology. However, the scientific subtleties of his soap bubble sets were all too often overshadowed by the apparent whimsical charm of his fairytale boxes.