Joseph Cornell never travelled but he still ‘collected’ far-flung locales by creating unique dioramas that functioned as 3D scrapbooks. Alastair Sooke reports.

Ever since antiquity, when jobbing sculptors and painters moved around the shores of the Mediterranean hunting for future commissions, artists have often been on the move.

That was certainly the case during the Renaissance, when the German artist Albrecht Dürer, for instance, visited Venice, documenting his journey in a series of virtuoso watercolours. The classical tradition that he encountered in Italy transformed the way he went about making pictures.

A couple of centuries later, it was commonplace for artists from northern Europe to travel, often via France and on to Italy, on the so-called Grand Tour, in order to acquaint themselves with masterpieces from antiquity.

The 18th Century Swiss artist Jean-Étienne Liotard, who specialised in flawless and magnificent pastel portraits that can be seen in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, did exactly that – arriving in Naples, for the first time, in 1735, before carrying on to Rome and Florence.

Everybody considered the Grand Tour an essential element in a gentleman’s education

“As all self-respecting artists did in the 18th Century, Liotard went to Italy for access to the antique tradition, and also the Renaissance tradition,” explains MaryAnne Stevens, one of the curators of the RA’s exhibition. “But he also went because that was a source of potential commissions, since everybody was doing the Grand Tour.”

By “everybody”, Stevens means the noblemen, courtiers, diplomats, poets, and sundry others who considered the Grand Tour an essential element in a gentleman’s education. In 1738, Liotard accompanied a couple of aristocratic English ‘milords’ on a voyage to Constantinople, where he remained for the next four years. For the rest of his career, he marketed himself, with considerable success, as ‘The Turk’.

In the 19th Century, the great Romantic French painter Delacroix was enthralled by his experiences in North Africa, in Morocco and Algeria. The sights that he encountered there inspired him throughout his life: “At every step there are ready-made pictures,” he wrote from the city of Meknes.

You have to head for the jungle to find simpler ways of doing things. – Henry Matisse

The French Modernist Matisse also found aesthetic sustenance in Morocco, which he visited twice between 1912 and 1913. Indeed, Matisse often turned to travel whenever he felt stymied as a painter. “In front of the canvas, I have no ideas whatever,” he wrote to his daughter, Marguerite, in 1929.

In order to replenish his artistic mojo, he booked a trip to Tahiti the following year – perhaps in honour of the Post-Impressionist painter Gauguin, who had lived and worked in French Polynesia.

“You can’t live in a household that is too well kept, a house kept by country aunts,” Matisse told a friend shortly before his Tahitian voyage. “You have to head for the jungle to find simpler ways of doing things that don’t stifle the spirit.” During the final decade of his life, when he was making his glorious paper cut-outs, Matisse often drew upon his memories of Tahiti.

Knowing without seeing

Yet adventures far afield are not always necessary when it comes to fashioning great art – as the biography of the spellbinding 20th Century American artist Joseph Cornell, the subject of a new retrospective at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, attests.

Cornell is famous for his glass-fronted ‘shadow-boxes’, which blend together disparate bits and bobs, such as clay tobacco pipes, corks, marbles and postage stamps, as well as pieces of paper collage, resulting in fantastical and poetic dioramas.

He spent his entire life in the United States, rarely venturing far beyond Manhattan or the area surrounding his small frame house in Queens. And yet he was intoxicated by European culture and history, which he researched avidly, combing the bookshops on Fourth Avenue during lunch breaks from his tedious day-job as a textile salesman.

Only at the end of the conversation did Cornell mention that he had never in fact seen Paris

In fact, his knowledge of the world beyond America became so detailed that when he met the French artist Marcel Duchamp, Cornell engaged in a long conversation with him, in Duchamp’s native tongue, about Paris – touching upon the Louvre as well as the lobbies of the city’s grand hotels. “Only at the end of the conversation did Cornell mention that he had never in fact seen the city, an admission that left Duchamp speechless,” Jasper Sharp, one of the curators of the Cornell exhibition, writes in the catalogue.

Naples (c 1942) is typical of the surprising worldliness of Cornell’s compositions. Within a glazed wooden box, with a metal handle, we see a wine glass and a seashell in front of a photograph of a street in the Italian city. Inside the glass, a baggage label with the word ‘Naples’ on it is suspended from thread strung across the top of the box, where scraps of pale textile also hang, like washing flapping on a line.

It is a highly urbane work of art, which presents itself as an elegant distillation of a memory of visiting this bewitching city. And yet, of course, Cornell had never been there.

Journey of the mind

The more you consider Cornell’s work, the more apparent the allusions to Europe become. There are many references to European art, including Dürer’s famous self-portrait at 13, as well as the continental tradition of cabinets of curiosities, which his shadow-boxes resemble.

Cornell also had a great passion for ballet. “If we were to reconstruct a biography of the man only from the work at hand,” the art historian Sandra Leonard Starr once wrote, “we would arrive at a puzzling conclusion. The artist would seem to have been a balletomane born in Europe around 1800, who spent a great deal of time travelling around England, France, Italy and America witnessing some of the greatest performances in the history of ballet; 150 years later, still in active pursuit of the dance as his subject, he appears to have settled in the United States until his death in 1972.”

The eccentricity of Cornell’s decision not to travel, given the subject matter of his art, was not lost on his contemporaries. In 1953 the (admiring) American Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell wrote: “What kind of man is this who, from old brown cardboard photographs collected in second-hand bookstores, has reconstructed the 19th Century ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe for his mind’s eye more vividly than those who took it, who was not born then and has never been abroad, who knows Vesuvius’s look at a certain morning of 1879, and of the cast-iron balconies of that hotel in Lucerne?”

Occasionally Cornell experienced the odd twinge of regret that he had never travelled

The answer is: a frugal and nostalgic man of extraordinary self-sufficiency, who felt strangely detached from his own time yet was capable of uncovering ample nourishment for his imagination within dusty old books and overlooked, yesteryear photographs.

Occasionally Cornell experienced the odd twinge of regret that he had never travelled: “There are so many places in this world I should have gone,” he once said. In general, though, he was happiest when he was rummaging through the antiquarian bookshops, flea markets and dime stores of New York, looking for mementoes of far-flung times and places. He described one of these establishments, which he often frequented, as “a sanctuary and retreat of infinite pleasures”.

It was here that he felt connected to the long tradition of travelling artists, because he could indulge his own peculiar wanderlust – of the mind.

Alastair Sooke is Art Critic of The Daily Telegraph

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