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Joseph Cornell and White Magic

After a recent visit to the Walker,  Kari Adelaide Razdow, an EdD candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College/Department of Arts and Humanities, wrote the commentary below.   In his book Towards a Philosophy of Photography, media philosopher Vilém Flusser emphasizes how “the significance of images is magical,” and that “the magical nature of images must be […]

"Untitled," circa 1968, by Joseph Cornell

After a recent visit to the Walker,  Kari Adelaide Razdow, an EdD candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College/Department of Arts and Humanities, wrote the commentary below.  

In his book Towards a Philosophy of Photography, media philosopher Vilém Flusser emphasizes how “the significance of images is magical,” and that “the magical nature of images must be taken into account when decoding them.”  While the word “magical” is nuanced with an array of slippery interpretive possibilities, Flusser’s utterances on magic and the image provides illuminating possibilities when examining the work of Joseph Cornell, currently on view at the Walker Art Center.

With an affinity for systematic cosmic abstractions and metaphorical realms, Cornell believed that his art objects embodied elements of “white magic” which counter-balanced the black magic tendencies that he suspected implicitly and darkly lurked within many Surrealist works of art. Cornell’s first solo museum show took place at the Walker Art Center in 1953, and the current Event Horizon exhibition in its galleries allows for a glimpse at his imaginative chambers of constellation shadowboxes, moon-and-starlet obsessed film montage, and lyrical dreamscapes of collage; these Surrealist shards of ephemera allow for a tracing of Cornell’s idealistically suspended and otherworldly representations of reality.

Visually, the crisp idiosyncratic brightness seen within Cornell’s work perhaps does lie in stark contrast to the seductively unstable wisps of chaos often seen within Surrealist art (for example, in Max Ernst’s eerie landscapes).  Even the poet and artist Mina Loy, Cornell’s compatriot, lauded his “hocus-pocus at play with dimension,” which she said awakened a viewer to the sublime, towards white magic.  In the early 1930s, Mina Loy asserted how “’People who get mixed up with black magic do suddenly look like death’s heads’… (Max Ernst looked like ‘a skull with ligaments still attached with the false eyes of an angel.’)  The Surrealists were, she thought, ‘expressive out of the cauldron over which a wizard hangs’.”

Overall, the Surrealist cauldron of chaos presented an experiment-at-play to somehow illuminate the  unconscious, and perhaps for Cornell, representing chaos alone was not a luminous endpoint for a visual manifestation of the unconscious or image magic.

(Note: Midnight Party, a Walker exhibition opening March 19, borrows its title from a Cornell work included in the show, the four-minute film The Midnight Party.)


Works Cited:

Burke, Carolyn.  Becoming Modern, The Life of Mina Loy, p. 380.  New York:  Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996.

Flusser, Vilém.  Towards a Philosophy of Photography, p. 9.  London: Reaktion Books, 2000.

Loy, Mina.  The Last Lunar Baedeker, p.302.  Ed. Roger L. Conover.  The Jargon Society, Inc., 1982.

An image from "Joseph Cornell," the 1953 Walker Art Center exhibition and the artist's first solo museum show

  • Frank Gaard says:

    Cornell’s films always thrill, the sculpture is fine but those films are magic straight up.So glad to see the films again so haunting and inspiring and yes and ever so beautiful. Magic is often just seeing something other’s miss. It’s finding a 4 leaf clover or an artist you can count on for pleasure and thoughts and yea magick.