Please note that this work has been requested for inclusion in the forthcoming exhibition Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust at the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, July 2015-January 2016.
Cornell's works from the 1930s possess an inexplicable amount of wonder and whimsy. It was during these years that, due to Cornell's lack of formal artistic training, and his innate desire to catalogue and collect objects of unyielding interest to him, he was able to experiment with a variety of containers and methods of display, which would ultimately inform his mature works. Moving beyond the intimately constructed, palm-sized paperboard boxes in search of a larger scale in which to harvest works of a greater complexity, he turned to prefabricated paperboard boxes and antique chests--before ultimately mastering a certain level of carpentry in 1936, which would allow him to construct his own wooden frames. Among his earliest glass-paned boxes is Untitled [Snow Maiden] from 1933. Emerging as a pivotal crux in the artist's early development, Untitled [Snow Maiden] introduces themes, styles of construction and certain characteristics that would remain of lasting importance throughout Cornell's life.
Glistening within her azure and marbled confines, Untitled [Snow Maiden] at first appears as a modestly unassuming construct culled from a vintage 1889 advertisement trade card and calendar for Taylor & Williams shoe store. However, this young child, lost in the snow, garners an exceptionally strong capability of pulling the viewer into gentle contemplation. Containing a seamlessly poetic ability to position herself within the grand story of Cornell's remarkable, fictional world, the tiny snow maiden becomes an important character who exists somewhere between the frosted terrain of the Rose Castel and the cosmos just beyond the Observatory Corona Borealis Casement. Imparting her own fantastic wonder, akin to the much celebrated Bébé Marie, her own humble constructs anticipate and welcome so many of Cornell's later cycles. Above all, she is the first manifestation of the feminine innocence--suspended in a perpetual world of youth--that would grow to consume her maker. Within her signature blue box, this tiny snow maiden materializes as the gatekeeper for many of Cornell's later explorations.
Completed less than a year before he began amassing his visionary dossier, Untitled (The Crystal Cage: Portrait of Bernice)--a small valise housing documents, photographs, prints and memorabilia--the latter work offers material insight into the strange enchantment the Untitled [Snow Maiden] seemed to have cast on Cornell only months prior. Pirating its title from ancient Egyptian royalty, as well as the constellation Coma Berenices, The Crystal Cage functioned as a portrait of an idea of Bernice, the young heroine of a "fairyland of actuality and dream" (J. Cornell, quoted in L. R. Hartigan, Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, exh. cat., Peabody Essex Museum, 2007, p. 304). The fantastic archive chronicles six-year-old Bernice's explorations of art, science and nature in her "miraculous observatory," the Pagoda de Chanteloup--a 16th century French tower that had allegedly been transported to New England by Bernice's parents. Cornell's pursuit of Bernice is a pursuit for childhood.
Borrowing the words of John Greenleaf Whittier's Child Life in Prose from 1807, the following resounded deeply for the artist's own search for youth: "Its beauty, innocence, dependence, and possibilities of destiny strongly appeal to our sensibilities, not only in real life but in fiction and poetry" (J. G. Whittier, quoted in J. Hauptman, Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the Cinema, New Haven, 1999, p. 163). As with so many pieces of heroic fiction regarding the innocence of youth, Cornell's Untitled (The Crystal Cage: Portrait of Bernice) denies the child's voyage into adulthood, and an analogous tale within the valise unearths the suspension of time as linked to Untitled [Snow Maiden]. Cut from a storybook and filed safely within the archive is Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'Snow Maiden' from 1851. In her own account of the tale, Museum of Modern Art curator, Jodi Hauptman recounts:
"'Snow Maiden,' is a story about wishes; the longings of children are powerful enough to make their dreams come true. Two children set out into their backyard on a winter day to create what Hawthorne describes as a 'snow sister.' After sculpting in snow all day, the brother and sister kiss the molded form, bringing her to life. With 'rose-tinged cheeks and ringlets of golden hue,' a white dress and matching slippers, the ice child 'danced so lightly over the snow that the tips of her toes left hardly a print in its surface' while she 'made a playmate of the brisk cold west wind.' Their father's (adult) disbelief ultimately destroys the snow child. Ignoring his children's protests and insisting that the snow maiden come into the house to warm herself, the father places her in front of the hot stove, whereupon she melts in a pool of water" (J. Hauptman, ibid., p. 195).
By seemingly adopting Hawthorne's subject in one of his earliest boxes, Untitled [Snow Maiden]--preserved behind the white paint flecks of the box's front pane, which evoke swirling flurries of snow--aptly illustrates the freezing of time, halting the inevitable melting of the frosted child. For Cornell, this little girl--who was so evocative of 'a flying snow drift' and 'sparkled like a star'--is yet another embodiment of Bernice, a child also brought to life by the longing of her creator and similarly only experienced in fleeting glints and glances (Ibid.).