Thursday, June 14, 2007

The sublime Joseph Cornell

My husband took me to see the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem for my birthday yesterday.

To be honest, I hardly stopped crying the entire time we were there -- except for the occasions when I burst out laughing (for example, reading his parody of a small-town newspaper, or looking into his box of lobsters doing the can-can).

Partly I think I was crying because Cornell and I both have younger brothers with severe disabilities. When I stopped by Cornell's collage incorporating a drawing of a cartoon character made by his brother, Robert, who had cerebral palsy, I thought of my younger brother Scott who has autism and epilepsy, and I burst into tears.

But it wasn't just that connection that made my cry. I looked at one box and felt overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness, and again with the spontaneous waterworks. I read the blurb and discovered that this box had been inspired by Emily Dickinson. Other boxes, the Palace series especially, provoked the same reaction in me.

My only disappointment was that there was no mention or representation in the exhibit of Cornell's long-time friendship with the ballerina Allegra Kent, who is one of my personal heroines. The two carried on a correspondence of collaged letters, and Cornell made a number of boxes and collages inspired by Ms. Kent. At one point in her life when she was in great financial need, he kindly offered her a generous amount of money, first as a gift, and when she hesitated, as a loan. She was appreciative of his kindness but felt her acceptance would affect their friendship. I like this story because it shows what a decent man he was, above and beyond his public persona as an eccentric recluse.

Cornell was a genius at igniting the imagination. This show is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I can't recommend it highly enough.

For more information click here for the museum's web site. (And, on a less emotional note, their cafeteria serves delicious food!)

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