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The Bergman Collection
Post Lot Text
Evolving out of the 20th century, a rich tradition of the appropriation and veneration for the art of the past emerged. According to Cornell, working on his boxes involved “imaginative pictorial research akin to image-making of poetry,” (J. Cornell, quoted in K. McShine, Joseph Cornell, exh. cat., New York, 1980 p. 115). Featuring Suzanne, Duchess of Bourbon, Flemish Princess is a classic box construction that draws on diverse themes that mattered greatly to Cornell, from theater to penny arcades and Old Master paintings, all poetically juxtaposed. Indeed, the title of the box construction is largely a misnomer—the young child was, in fact, the Duchess of Bourbon and, as the granddaughter of King Louis XI of France, a part of the French monarchy. As such, it emerges as a tribute to the Flemish painter Jean Hey, better known as the Master of Moulins, who worked in the traditional Flemish Primitive style in France during the 15th century.
Themes from art history are prevalent throughout his oeuvre, an attraction that stemmed from his frequent visits to the New York City Public Library and Book Row, a district comprised of bookstores and open-air bookstalls located near Union Square. Implementing such iconic images as Master of Moulins, Suzanne de Bourbon, Pinturicchio’s Portrait of a Boy, Caravaggio’s Head of a Boy, and Parmigianino’s Antea, Cornell devoted hours to what he referred to as his “grand tour”, in which he perused all manners of books that included everything from discarded and decaying volumes and rare first editions, to curios and antiques. His relentless examination of yellowed and dog-eared volumes, playbills, photographs and ephemera provided Cornell with a veritable trove of source material to use in his work.
“The Flemish Child again features a reversed signature, hinting at a world adjacent to our own,” Harry Rand, Senior Curator at the National Museum of American History, explained in the December 1977 edition of Arts Magazine. “An image Cornell often employed serially, the madra-like, cupped hands of the child could have held the nineteen blue wooden balls (rolling in oblong compartments arranged on a square plan of 5 by 5 inches). Over its black paint the wooden grid was occasionally, and in the most subtle way, tinted blue—Cornell’s own methaline blue, perhaps in homage to one of his idols, Vermeer, who also composed by grid. Such secret speculations face the work without shedding real light on their gripping emotional equations. The boxes requite a need we long forgot, a thirst graciously and elegantly quenched with a long-gone aesthetic recent, superficial history told us to despise. We cannot even be sure Cornell is a miniaturist because we cannot say what it is he miniaturizes: an expectation that great work ought to be carried out on a grand scale is revealed as a purely modern prejudice, if not a perversion” (H. Rand, “Joseph Cornell,” Arts Magazine, December 1977, p. 3).
Indeed, there is an element of gravitas in Flemish Princess that Cornell explored further in his Medici Slot Machines of the 1940s and 1950s. Owing a great deal to Johannes Vermeer, whose paintings The Milkmaid and A Lady Writing were also on view at the New York World’s Fair, Cornell notably shared the Dutch masters fascination for scientific invention, cartography, astronomy and optics. Understanding the fundamentals of Vermeer’s art and in particular his interior scenes, Cornell adopted the rigor in which his predecessor structured his images, including his interest in gridded compositions, perspective, color and light, as well as his painstaking attention to detail. Creating domestic arenas in which the everyday and the common place took on the aura of the transcendental and the sublime, one can sense the air and feel the light within Vermeer’s paintings. Likewise, and probably more intriguing to Cornell, Vermeer’s female subjects are simultaneously palpable and inaccessible—the young princess is not only made unavailable to us by the glass pane, but also the wooden bars that stretch in front of her. Following in Vermeer’s path, Cornell underscored the structural component of his shadow boxes to give free rein to his own highly developed poetic imagery.
A hard lyrical syntax clarified by a clean sense and geometry, Cornell’s Flemish Princess clad with geometrical wit and youthful playfulness, rescues the viewer from the emotional absence of nostalgia. Adopting a similar format found in his series of Dovecotes, the structure of the box alludes to the dovecotes or colombiers, which were developed during the Middle Ages as compartmented, often raised, houses or boxes for the domestic pigeons kept by knights as a sign of prestige. Encountering heavily whitewashed colonial versions of dovecotes during his youthful travels throughout New England, Cornell became intrigued by the history and meaning of the word, and delighted in discovering that dovecote could be defined as a settled or harmonious group or organization, and that the Latin term—columbarium—referred to a structure of vaults lined with recesses for funerary urns.
With faultless poeticism, Flemish Princess builds on a brief temporal delay as the watcher examines each register—as if it came with no particular objective. “Perhaps the definition of a box could be as a kind of forgotten game,” Cornell suggests. “A philosophical toy of the Victorian era, with poetic or magical moving parts, achieving even slight measure of this poetry or magic... that golden age of the toy alone should justify the box’s existence” (J. Cornell, quoted in D. Ades, Joseph Cornell, exh. cat., New York, 1980, p. 29).
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. Flemish Princess 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.
Recalling a film strip, Flemish Princess anticipates 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.
While, indeed, the appropriated image, the found object and the elusive past form the heart of Cornell’s practice, Diane Waldman most eloquently sums up the artist’s intent, stating: “Cornell was a master appropriator, using the images of artists he admired as his way of engaging them in a meaningful dialogue. He altered found objects in a desire to enhance their identity, whereas later artists have often preferred to use the unaltered object as a way of questioning its role in society. Issues of gender and politics held little or no interest for Cornell. Every ballet or concert that he attended every image by Vermeer, Gris, Duchamp, every ball, jack, and cockatoo had something unique to say to him. These images could be used over and over again, but each represented a different thought process and a different set of emotions. Each box relates to the others—they are complete in and of themselves, but indispensable to one another” (D. Waldman, Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams, New York, 2002, p. 139).