At 16, Joseph Cornell had to leave school to support his family: his father's death forced him to take charge of his mother and three brothers, one of whom was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
When, in 1921, he began to work in New York as door to door fabrics salesman, he also began to explore the city far and wide, discovering shops and markets crammed with knick-knacks and objects from all over the planet.
He became a collector of postcards, books, newspapers, sand and stones in bottles, old games, maps, and gradually he discovered the joy of assembling them to create worlds of fantasy encased in wooden and glass boxes.
Visiting an exhibition about Joseph Cornell, as we did last week at the Royal Academy of Art in London, it is like stepping into the soul of a tireless traveler who never moved from his house.
Not surprisingly, next to the creation of games for children and the evident importance that Cornell gives to their simple and recurring astonishments, his art is full of birds in glass cages and barred windows: a constant metaphor about the desire to travel and the inability to do it, that soon becomes a stylistic and lifestyle choice.
Even when Cornell could have afford the travels he had been dreaming for all his life, he decided to stay home: when he became a famous artist, considered the most important exponent of the American surrealism, he chose not to take flight.
The fact was that he started to judge a great privilege his abstractionability, the possibility to be in two different places, one physical and one imagined, at the same time, be sure that the reality-check onthe fantasy places where he was used to take refuge would not disappoint him.
Emblematic is his box with a world map in the background and empty glasses in the foreground: in one of these, two blue marbles that seem sea drops stolen from the oceans behind, an offer madeto the viewer, an invitation to enjoy the oceans without moving an inch.
And then paper girls taking off on a hot air balloon, skies full of stars, books that are home to secret hiding places, countless drawers to safeguard dreams and memories, postcards to shield the nostalgia.
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was a great traveler who has not taken a step, an explorer able to find stories in insignificant details, careful to record everything that was happening around him and generous enough to donate his visions, his desires and the fantastic worlds created in his small boxes to the all of us.
Dedicated to all those who know how to travel even while standing still.
Click on a pic to open the full gallery