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Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna presents landmark exhibition of Joseph Cornell's work
Joseph Cornell, Palace, 1943. Box construction, 26.7 x 50.5 x 13 cm. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo The Menil Collection, Houston. Photography: Hickey-Robertson © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Bildrecht, Wien, 2015.

VIENNA.- Tracing the full arc of the artist’s remarkable life and career over more than forty years, the Kunsthistorisches Museum is presenting Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust until 10th January, 2016. This landmark exhibition includes more than 80 works, from collages, films and early objects produced in the 1930s to the intricate box constructions for which the artist is best known. It is the first survey of Joseph Cornell’s work ever to be presented in Austria, and the first major exhibition in Europe for more than thirty years. The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with the Royal Academy, London.

"Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust“ follows the hugely successful exhibition dedicated to Lucian Freud in 2013, and continues the series of retrospective surveys of modern masters at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

With very few works on permanent display in European museums, the exhibition provides an opportunity to see rarely lent masterpieces from important public and private collections. On display are key works from all of the major series that Cornell produced during his career, including Museums, Aviaries, Soap Bubble Sets, Palaces, Medici Slot Machines, Hotels and Dovecotes. Several works are being sjown in Europe for the very first time; others are being publicly shown for the first time in many years. Interestingly, a number of key loans to the exhibition are, or used to be, in the private collections of artists, among them Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp and Dorothea Tanning.

Presented within the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the works of Joseph Cornell enter into fascinating conversations with all sorts of historical objects, from Renaissance paintings and the cabinet of coins and medals to Egyptian burial keepsakes. But it is with the museum’s Kunstkammer and its holdings of mirabilia, naturalia, artificialia and scientifica that this dialogue is most intense.

As well as being an artist, Cornell was also among the greatest collectors of the twentieth century. His works were made using the many thousands of small objects that he found in antiquarian bookshops, flea markets, dime stores or washed up on the beaches on Long Island; from marbles, seashells, bird’s nests, curtain rings, watch parts and out-of-print books to a mass of paper ephemera including postage stamps, maps, prints, guidebooks, even shipping and train timetables. Part souvenir, part relic and part specimen, Cornell’s works seem record fictional expeditions around the world, playing with the language of museums and the systems of classification that underpin natural history.

Over more than forty years, he created his own, private cabinet of curiosities every bit as astonishing as those collected by the kings, emperors and aristocrats of Renaissance Europe. Like them, Cornell took pleasure in small things, and the stories that they told. Like them, he sought to capture the world in a box, in an attempt to understand its workings and our place within it. And like them, he presented special objects as gifts to special people. The only difference was their material value. Cornell was not interested in costly or extravagant objects: his was a world of simple treasures, transformed into the most marvellous and precious of creations. He was, a friend once said, „the Benvenuto Cellini of flotsam and jetsam“.

For this reason, the final part of the exhibition „Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust“ can be found within the Kunstkammer itself, where a small group of Cornell’s objects are temporarily on display. To further underline and explore this affinity, visitors can follow a special path through the Kunstkammer to see it through Cornell’s eyes. In each of the main galleries, an historical object from the museum’s collection has been singled out for its special resonance with Cornell’s own work. Through them we learn more about Cornell’s interests, and the extent to which they have preoccupied artists and craftsmen for many hundreds of years. Cornell never made it to Vienna, because he never once left the United States: but if he had, these are the objects that we think he might have liked.

Joseph Cornell (born 1903 in New York, died 1972 in New York) never moved from the family home that he shared with his mother and younger brother in Flushing, New York. The street on which they lived had a wonderfully appropriate name: Utopia Parkway. He received no formal artistic training, and worked long hours as a door-to-door salesman for a textiles company in Lower Manhattan. He made his earliest works in the 1930s on the family’s kitchen table; when the table was no longer big enough, he moved down to the basement. Hidden away from the spotlight of the New York artworld, he created one of the most remarkable bodies of work of the twentieth century.

Cornell never once set foot outside his native country, and beyond his schooling and a few childhood holidays, rarely strayed far from home. And yet, his knowledge of the world, and of Europe in particular, was astounding. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue will examine in detail Cornell’s relationship with the continent of Europe, his knowledge and understanding of its culture, history and geography, and his relationship with many of its key personalities, from writers and composers to ballet dancers and stargazers. The exhibition’s title, wanderlust, acknowledges his restless imagination and ability to travel metaphorically through both place and time. His particular interest in Austria, in Vienna, and in specific works from the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s collections will also be revealed.

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