Like so many of his Surrealist contemporaries, Joseph Cornell delighted in the whimsical juxtaposition between objects and the resultant interaction that can occur. Rather than impose an encrypted meaning that is the viewer's responsibility to decipher, he wished to elucidate the profound objecthood of the elements that comprise his boxes. The piercing gaze of Bia de' Medici in Cornell's Compartmented Medici Princess, circa 1950, confronts the viewer not once, but thirty times and is a remarkable example of his playful wit and intriguing sensibilities. The emphasis placed on the image of the princess as she inhabits each disparate space allows the viewer to focus on the nuances on each of the reproduced images, as further consideration reveals the slight within each image. The repeated image of the young princess is frozen behind cerulean glass that serves to distill the image, relegating her to a distant past, far from the reality of the present. In front of each portrait sits a wooden ball painted blue that remains trapped forever between the princess and the surface of the glass, creating a liminal reality between two worlds of the past and present. The interaction between objects and references in this piece is a reminder of Cornell's uncanny ability to coax the viewer to find meaning where there seemingly is none, while also allowing the objects to become marvelous is their initially perceived familiarity.
While the artist often utilized this iconic portrait by the Italian master Bronzino of the daughter from the renowned Florentine art patron family, in the present lot, Cornell depicts the young girl in sequence in the manner of a contact sheet or film roll, reproduced multiple times. Cornell possessed a penchant for art history, and had a particular affinity for the Medici family as evidenced by his frequent use of their Renaissance-era portraits. Along with Bronzino's Bia de' Medici, Cornell habitually referenced other depictions of Medici family members, including the portraits of the young Piero de' Medici, painted by the little-known woman artist Sofinisba Anguissola, and Cosimo de' Medici by Caravaggio. While the power and influence of the Medici family spanned numerous generations and had an impact on all aspects of culture, Cornell fixated on these childhood portraits, especially that of Bia, the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo, who succumbed to a fever at the age of six. It is believed that Cosimo commissioned Bronzino to paint the portrait posthumously, after his daughter's untimely death. Here she is forever immortalized behind glass. The tribute to Bia becomes multiplied in this work, imprinting the image of the princess and committing it to memory. Rather than having a diluting effect on the striking and memorable portrait, the use of repetition only increases the intensity of her never faltering gaze and serves to instill the image further into consciousness.
Cornell's fascination with the Medici family and Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces was just one of the numerous inspirations that found its way into his work. While themes from art history are prevalent throughout his oeuvre, this attraction stemmed from his frequent visits to the New York City Public Library and Book Row, a district comprised of bookstores and open-air bookstalls located near Union Square. Cornell devoted hours to what he referred to as his "grand tour", in which he perused all manners of books that included everything from discarded and decaying volumes and rare first editions, to curios and antiques. His relentless examination of yellowed and dog-eared volumes, playbills, photographs and ephemera provided Cornell with a veritable trove of source material to use in his work. In addition to this multitude of historical knowledge and print material from which to draw inspiration, Cornell's fond childhood memories of Coney Island's penny arcades, Eden Musée's waxworks and vaudeville theater productions proved to be equally as stimulating for the budding artist. Later in life, Cornell recreated this childhood fascination in his constant scouring of flea markets and antique shops for the unique and nostalgic objects that would proliferate his constructed shadow boxes. In Compartmented Medici Princess, Cornell contrasts the Bronzino reproductions with the identical pinball-sized wooden spheres that allude to the arcade games and Victorian toys of his youth. Adding to the intrigue of the work, Cornell lined the back of the box with pages torn from an Italian book that delineates the proper method in which to estimate the value of one's landholdings. Rather than attempting to obscure hidden meaning behind this curious reference to arcane Italian, it is likely that Cornell was simply intrigued by the page's aged appearance and its romantic sentiment, as yet another nostalgic allusion to the past.
Greatly influenced by Max Ernst's 1929 graphic novel, La Femme 100 Têtes (The Woman with 100 Heads), in which Ernst combined seemingly disparate objects in order to create fanciful and often disturbing dreamscapes, Cornell's shadow boxes supply an endless number of possible interpretations. While it is tempting to evoke allusions to the meaning behind Cornell's choice of paired objects, like the Medici Princess and wooden spheres, Cornell was primarily concerned with the objective value of the objects he used. The stark simplicity and the emphasis on one repeated image each coupled with a single prop, the blue wooden ball, Compartmented Medici Princess permits more clearly the objects to exist, fully allowing the viewer to appreciate their properties and their presence in space, rather than be forced to decode or find a hidden meaning between this juxtaposition of objects. In the catalogue for C&M Gallery's exhibition Joseph Cornell: Box Constructions and Collages, author and good friend of Cornell's, Donald Windham, recalls that the artist "found the marvelous and the ordinary interchangeable. Objects were sometimes one, sometimes the other; and his inspiration often came from this interchangeability" (D. Windham, Joseph Cornell: Box Constructions and Collages, exh. cat., New York, 1995, p. 5). This ability to both create the capricious pairings of unexpected objects that capture the viewer's imagination and provoke further inquiries into the artist's intent, coupled with a deep understanding of the power of the object to be simultaneously ordinary and profound, have ensured that works like Compartmentalized Medici Princess continue to inspire consideration of their resonance and importance generations after their creation.