I am currently reading a well-known, well-received and very beautiful book, The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It was a recommendation from a close friend who knows my obsession with all things miniature. It traces the journey of 264 netsuke, pocket-sized masterpieces carved from wood and ivory, that are acquired by a wealthy member of his family back in 1870s Paris. He has a love of collecting and Japanese objets d’art, in particular, hold a fascination for him. The sensory nature of their materials and the history carried within this captivates both the collector and the book’s author.
It was, by chance then, that I had this on my mind when we stepped into the Wanderlust exhibition at the RAA today. Displaying the works of Joseph Cornell, the exhibition is full of what, at first glance, could be the hoardings of the most avid collector. These tiny pictorial narratives are exactly that - a collection in every sense of the word. Each box, each picture, each treasure, has been made from the fruits of decades of delving into the flea markets and antique shops of New York.
Like the netsuke, which could take one man and his knife years to carve into its final form, Cornell’s works span a lifetime of his thoughts and imaginings. Many of the pieces have recurring and, in some cases, continuing narratives. Walking from one to the next you feel drawn into a whimsical story, more sophisticated than a child’s tale but told with the nostalgia of someone who remembers them well. You feel that he might have returned to these pieces over time, adding something here and there, stretching the story around another corner, leaving another piece of himself in the puzzle.
Each work, always displayed carefully in a casement or container of Cornell’s making, feels crafted and cared for. This is a person who took great joy in the small and the delicate and who, as children do, found treasures everywhere he looked. The value of those treasures is held in the story they tell, not their monetary worth.
The feel of an object, it’s tactility if you like, is also part of the treasure. Cornell displays scrolls of tiny text, bundled up into a box as if they were archived. Only by taking them out do you discover their true nature - boxes in camouflage hiding their bounty within.
A traveller’s box instructs you to “KEEP FLAT” when really you need to turn it on it’s head, shake out each of the compasses neatly stored within and see what is unearthed beneath.
Similarly, the netsuke were to be held within the hand so that the full depths of their identity can only be revealed when the visual connects to the tangible. You must feel the path of the craftsman’s tool to understand his story. Both artist and collector, Cornell demonstrates the connection between maker and object; story and reality.
Images sourced here