M'lle Faretti is an extraordinary, early Joseph Cornell sculpture and an important discovery. In the same private collection since its creation 70 years ago, M'lle Faretti is one of the artist's earliest extant boxes. Until now, the work has never been publicly exhibited or reproduced. Cornell was a student of ballet history, its music and its ballerinas.
Cornell became friendly with some of the top ballerinas and made a number of works in homage to them. Cornell's boxes are in many ways a miniature Surrealist stage set, complete with architectural elements, characters and props. M'lle Faretti consists of a souvenir picture of the ballerina behind a "curtain" of string. Adapting a pre-fabricated box, Cornell created a proscenium-like setting, with two flanking, pillar-like mirror panels and a lintel along the top. Directly above the ballerina are three handmade and painted still-life chatzkes that Cornell might have picked up during one of his trolling adventures through Manhattan junk shops. In color and form, the still-lifes suggest bouquets of flowers that would have been thrown on stage.
In the early 1930's, Cornell transformed himself from a cultured gadfly, artworld tourist and obsessive collector of ephemera into a single-minded artist showing at one of the most dynamic galleries in New York. In 1931, Cornell discovered the recently opened Julien Levy Gallery, who exhibited contemporary art, photography and experimental film. At Levy, he encountered the European Surrealists, notably the collages of Max Ernst. This proved to be the catalyst for an artist who was moving in the direction of Surrealism. The Surrealists use of photography and unorthodox materials influenced him, as well as their juxtaposition of disparate fragments in the service of creating a new visual poetry.
Levy included Cornell's collages in a group exhibition Surrialisme in January 1932, which marked Cornell's public debut. In December of the same year, Cornell had his first solo exhibition at Levy. M'lle Faretti was executed a year later.
Cornell was reluctant to be associated with Surrealism. "I do not share in the subconscious and dream theories of the surrealists. While fervently admiring much of their work, I have never been an official surrealist, and I believe that surrealism has healthier possibilities than have been developed" (Cornell, as quoted in Joseph Cornell, New York, 1980, p. 103). Nonetheless, he was included in the groundbreaking exhibitions Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism (1936) at the MoMA and Exposition Internationale du Surrialisme (1938) at the Galerie Beaux-Arts, organized by André Breton and Paul Éluard.
Cornell was friendly with Ann Lenhart Macy, who was married to William Macy of the noted department store family. Through Ann, Cornell met her sister Sarah Lenhart Knox, for whom he made M'lle Faretti. The sculpture was displayed in the same spot in a corner china cabinet in their Valley Cottage, New York home for twenty-two years, until Sarah died and it was passed to her daughter. It remained in her possession for forty-two years until it was passed to her daughter in 1999.
M'lle Faretti has all of the magic and innocence of Cornell's best work, and is imbued with an indescribable nostalgia. What prevents it becoming as cloying as a Victorian box of quaint trinkets is Cornell's formal rigor, genius for composition and unerring choice of materials. Cornell considered himself a Constructivist and the formal qualities of his work were always of paramount importance. The artist's works are always open-ended, allowing the viewer to complete the work by reading their interpretations into them.
Joseph Cornell, c 1940. Copyright Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C./Art Resource, NY
André Breton, For Jacqueline, 1937 c 2003 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris