An air of childlike innocence pervades the work of Joseph Cornell. This atmosphere of the imaginative interior leads many critics to link him with the Surrealists, an association that Cornell, a great admirer of the movement, would not deny. But rather than trafficking in enigma, as Magritte or Ernst did, Cornell used the techniques of the Surrealists to become, with Odilon Redon, one of the last great Symbolist poets. His materials and techniques--the shadow boxes filled with found objects, the colored sand and glass balls of childhood games, are a spiritual guidebook to the fantasies of the mind.
Navigational themes dominate Cornell's oeuvre. As Dawn Ades has written:
Charts and maps extend naturally to the idea of the voyage and thus reach into one of Cornell's richest areas of association The iconography of the Navigation and Celestial Navigation boxes overlaps, inevitably, with the Soap Bubble Sets [a variant] contains the cork ball and cordial glass from the Soap Bubble Sets. It is hard not to see many of Cornell's boxes as sailor's sea chests, with contents rich and strange or salvaged from a wreck. (D. Ades, "The Transcendental Surrealism of Joseph Cornell," in exh. cat., Joseph Cornell, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1980, pp. 33-34)