Questioning Authority: Chris Benfey on Joseph Cornell

Cultural critic Chris Benfey, Mellon Professor of English and Five College Fortieth Anniversary Professor, recently reviewed the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the new Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, for ( The show, which features a wide range of the twentieth-century American artist’s films, boxes, and collages, will be at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, from April 28 to August 19.

QA: The Mount Holyoke College Art Museum has several works of art by Cornell. What are their subjects and why are they significant?

CB: There are a dozen works by Cornell in the museum including three boxes. The rest are collages of the kind he did late in his life, and they include subjects he returned to again and again. Cornell was passionate about ballet, and collected all sorts of objects and documents related to nineteenth-century ballerinas. One of the Mount Holyoke collages is called Tristesse Ballerinette, which I suppose you could translate as the sadness of a little ballerina. Another is called The Moon, one of the hundreds of boxes and collages inspired by astronomy.

QA: Why was Cornell interested in poet Emily Dickinson?

CB: Both Cornell and Dickinson were loners who holed up in their houses and created utterly distinctive works of art. We know them by their addresses: Emily Dickinson on Main Street in Amherst, [Massachusetts]; Joseph Cornell on Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York. Cornell first became interested in Dickinson when he came across her photograph, taken when she was around 16 during her year at Mount Holyoke. The thought of Dickinson alone in her room writing poems became an obsession for Cornell, and he began creating his distinctive boxes and collages inspired by her life and poetry.

QA: What are your favorite Cornell boxes and why?

CB: I love the box titled Toward the Blue Peninsula (For Emily Dickinson), from around 1953. It shows a white room with a small window looking out on a blue sky. As you look at the box, you realize that it’s a bird cage, too, with wire mesh. There’s a little perch at the bottom of the box, but the perch is empty. The absent bird is Emily Dickinson. His Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) is amazing. It’s both a pinball game and a mysterious portrait of the very young Lauren Bacall, who had just starred in Howard Hawks’s film To Have and Have Not. Cornell thought Bacall looked like a lonely young woman in a hotel room, a bit like Emily Dickinson in her room in Amherst or Joseph Cornell on Utopia Parkway.

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