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A stay-at-home artist whose collages and cabinets attest to a mind that wandered far and wide…

Not being much of a photographer, I’m drawn to the idea of collecting so-called ‘found photographs’. I’m similarly curious about – well, Cabinets of Curiosities.

Two good reasons, then, to visit ‘Wanderlust’, the exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s diverse work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last weekend.

Cornell (1903-72) wasn’t a trained artist, and his ‘art’ is not easy to summarise.   Let’s start by positing that his acute eye for other people’s creativity led him to scoop up photos and objects and then slowly, methodically rework or rearrange them.

He hardly left New York State, and resisted all invitations to visit the Europe of poets and ballets that loomed large in his imagination. It’s tempting to connect Cornell’s fascination for winged creatures with his own flights of fancy and self-denied yearning for foreign lands, or simply to say he displayed magpie instincts in the way he collected trinkets.

a cabinet

A typical Cornell arrangement sits inside a glass-fronted box. In Untitled (aviary with parrot and drawers), from 1949, a swirling wire tape like a two-dimensional drawing of a snail’s shell hangs above a flat model of a green parrot, possibly imitating a bird’s crest. I spotted this same metallic motif reoccurring in his Medici series. Here, cut out reproductions of Renaissance portraits are worked to look like photos and placed in boxes reminiscent of the slot machines Cornell knew so well from his childhood. The spherical object sitting in the corner represents, I guess, a kind of pinball.

Cornell was a reserved character, but it seems he wasn’t short of acquaintances. A little model swan sitting on a mirror was a homage to a ballerina, Tamara Toumanova, who owned it for a time.

Like his friend Marcel Duchamp he had a clear affinity with strange juxtapositions, though he shied away from the often dark world-view of the Surrealists. I like to imagine him as an eccentric, excited scientist-artist – discovering and describing the world, revealing the extraordinary inner workings of the commonplace. I learned that he kept folders labelled ‘Natural Philosophy’, which harks back to an era – a happier one in some respects, if we’re honest – before the two disciplines went their separate ways and science was left isolated and boringly specialised.

Cornell was an experimental filmmaker too. The flickering captions he added to a grainy six-minute collage from the 1930s make the film seem cruder still.

I hadn’t heard of the man before the exhibition previews started appearing in the media. He has inspired creativity in others, across a number of art forms.  I would have liked to see gallery space dedicated to telling us who they are and how his strange career left its mark on them.