"Shadowboxes become poetic theaters or settings wherein [their contents] are metamorphosed [into] the elements of a childhood pastime. The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets--a connotation of moon and tides" (J. Cornell, quoted in D. Waldman, Joseph Cornell, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, p. 13).
Joseph Cornell's enchanting Magic Soap Bubble Set was first acquired by Elizabeth Raphael, one of Pittsburgh's most influential art patrons. When she was just twenty-one years old, she opened Outlines, the city's first modern art gallery. Local art students like Andy Warhol "made time to visit [the] local avant-garde gallery called Outlines, where he was exposed to the work of such cutting-edge artists...as John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell" (Andy Warhol Museum Staff, Andy Warhol: 365 Takes, Pittsburgh, 2004, p. 7). Her 1944 show, "Surrealist Objects: Toys, Pinball Machines and Others"--Cornell's first solo exhibition outside New York--presented Magic Soap Bubble Set and eleven other early shadowboxes.
The exhibition was reviewed in the local Post Gazette by a somewhat baffled writer, who headlined the article, "Surrealism Invades Pinball Machine Field With Nickelless Objet d'art--For a Price," (V. Johnson, Post Gazette, 31 March 1944). Raphael's other exhibitions were met with similarly perplexed reviews, with titles ranging from, "Weird French Film Shown at Outlines" to "One-man Surrealist Show is Largely a Bottle Display." Despite the conservative taste of locals, Raphael continued to pioneer modern art in Pittsburgh. Her gallery became known as a salon for creative talent, supplementing its exhibitions with a stimulating program of lectures by Lázló Moholy-Nagy, collaborative performances by Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and avant-garde films by Jean Cocteau. Outline's list of exhibited artists reads like a roll call of the most important of the 20th century, from early modernists Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse to contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Joseph Albers and Alexander Calder. The gallery closed in 1947, but not before mounting numerous shows that forged a path for local institutions and museums, including the Carnegie Institute. Raphael's legacy will be chronicled in the forthcoming documentary, Tracing Outlines, to be released this year.
Raphael first encountered Cornell's art at Peggy Guggenheim's famous New York gallery, The Art of This Century. She remembers, "I asked her if there was any chance of getting [Cornell] for a one man show. She said she'd be thrilled but would have to ask him. I wrote him a couple of letters and may even have visited him and he was excited about it...The show was very popular" (E. Raphael, quoted in "Elizabeth Rockwell Raphael Interview," Society for Contemporary Craft, Pittsburgh, www.contemporarycraft.org). Her extraordinary commitment to modern art was entirely without financial agenda; in fact, she often bought and sold works at lower prices, personally underwriting the difference to jumpstart an artist's career. Her bold patronage of Cornell's art was especially prescient: at the time she put on "Surrealist Objects," she remembers how "the only artists who admired [Cornell's] work were Surrealists...Nothing happened for Joseph until years later when the [Museum of Modern Art] decided to give him a one-man show." (E. Raphael quoted in op. cit.). Lent by Raphael to the Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1980, Magic Soap Bubble Set bore witness to the growing recognition of Cornell's work, as it was exhibited early on at the visionary Pittsburgh gallery and later, at the eminent modern museum.
In Magic Soap Bubble Set, Cornell arranges the fragments of his Lower Manhattan wanderings, transforming his dime-store treasures into enchanting microcosmic cabinets. The work belongs to the Soap Bubble Set series, Cornell's first group of mature box constructions. In the late 1930s, the artist learned new carpentry skills that allowed him to make more refined, wood-frame objects which replaced his earlier paperboard ones. The first of the series was included in the MoMA's Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition, organized by the museum's founding director Alfred H. Barr Jr. The set was shortly thereafter acquired by the Wadsworth Athenaeum--Cornell's first work to enter a museum collection.
Magic Soap Bubble Set presents creamy, pale coloring and grand divisions signature of his earliest boxes. Cornell places a German lunar map as the central backdrop; in front, two cordial glasses bookend a series of glass discs on a bed of purple fabric. Lateral panels hold mirrored arrangements of white pipes, glass marbles and two seashells. On the uppermost shelf, wooden cylinders hang from the top, stamped with images that refer to celestial navigation: the mythical figure Andromeda, constellations, a seafaring ship, the planet Jupiter, and a bird's head. The roundness of the marbles, glass circles and lunar map, appealed to Cornell as they allude to the spherical soap bubble. Traditionally, the soap bubble is read as an allegory of vanitas: its shimmering, diaphanous surface acts as a memento mori, a reminder of the transience of life and its earthly objects. Similarly the work's juxtaposition of distinct textures of glass, seashells, and clay alludes to 17th century still lifes and the treasures and imagery newly discovered from seafaring voyages. Celestial navigation became his primary visual metaphor for extended travel across time and space. In this light, Magic Soap Bubble Set is particularly bittersweet, since Cornell often stayed within the confines of his house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, never travelling further than the Northeast where he grew up. Despite his cloistered life, Cornell used his boxes to investigate far-off, imagined universes.