Displaying a deep sense of wonder about the ephemeral effects of gravity and the ordinary magic of the everyday world, particularly as viewed through a child’s eyes, Joseph Cornell’s Object belongs to the artist’s longest running and best-known series. The Soap Bubble Sets were the first wood-and-glass box constructions of Cornell’s career, and they demonstrate many of Cornell’s deeply held beliefs. The present Soap Bubble Set of 1940 presents the lyrical depiction of soap bubbles formed by a clay pipe; set against a backdrop of rich chocolate-colored velvet, these bubbles rise upwards, each containing an image of a delicate white shell. Indeed, the brilliance of the white shells set against a darkened backdrop recalls celestial bodies orbiting a deep night sky. Cornell believed in the spiritual interconnectedness between the universe and the natural world, and Object makes visible his understanding that “literal things can create an elaborate and subtle form of magic” (L. Hartigan, “Dance with Duality,” in Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay....Eterniday,” New York, 2003, p. 23).
The dreamlike interior world that Cornell creates in Object remains a bewitching one; emerging from a claw-footed clay pipe, delicate black-and-white renderings of various types of ornately formed shells begin to float upward, as if the laws of gravity had been suddenly suspended. The largest and central-most shell is the nautilus, which displays the spiral pattern that Cornell equated with the spiral nebulae of the universe, and he takes delight in the crenellations, peaks and other unusual features the shells display. In an added touch of whimsy, Cornell places a conical-shaped shell near the mouth of the pipe to mimic rising smoke.
Cornell has taken images of shells from the thousands of books in his collection, and he affixed the black-and-white copies onto transparent glass discs. This imparts a translucent, glowing quality to the shells as light passes through the glass pane of the wood box and gets reflected back again, like an x-ray. The dark blue background works in tandem with the luminosity of the shells to impart a celestial realm, lending spiritual interpretations to the piece; seashells have long been understood as metaphors for the soul. Lynda Roscoe Hartigan summarizes the series thusly, “Cornell succinctly marries the life of a bubble, gone in the blink of an eye, with the measure of geological time. As with so many of Cornell’s works, it is an image that is both playful and serious, hovering between a magic trick and important scientific enquiry” (L. Hartigan, Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2015, p.139)
Recent scholarship has suggested that Cornell gathered inspiration for the Soap Bubble Sets from a wide variety of sources. Among them, Cornell had in his archives Soap Bubbles and the Forces Which Mold Them, a Victorian-era book by C.V. Boys and advertisements for Pear’s Soap. He seems to have been intrigued by Dutch vanitas paintings of boys blowing bubbles, since he had an illustration of Jacob van Oost’s seventeenth century painting Two Boys Blowing Bubbles from the Christian Science Monitor retained in his collection. He would have seen a similar painting, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s Soap Bubbles of 1734, at the ‘39 World’s Fair. The pictorially astute Cornell would also have been familiar with the Dutch tradition of memento mori, and understood the allegorical connotations of bubbles as evocative of the fragility of life. Indeed, Cornell’s Soap Bubble Sets seem to present the very origins of life itself—in the form of fossilized shells—housed within a fragile bubble.
As a child, Cornell had enjoyed blowing bubbles from the white clay pipes made originally in Holland, and while an adult, he had found a few clay pipes while walking the beaches near his home in New York (he routinely combed through the flotsam and jetsam that washed ashore). The vast majority of the clay pipes that Cornell used in the Soap Bubble Sets, however, were acquired from the Dutch Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, which took place near the artist’s home in Flushing, Queens. These particular pipes would have reminded Cornell of his father, who was Dutch by descent, and who died before the artist reached adulthood.
Cornell created his first Soap Bubble Set in 1936, which he exhibited in the groundbreaking Museum of Modern Art exhibit Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, curated by Alfred H. Barr. This was the first object that Cornell sold to a public collection, as the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut acquired the work for its collection. Cornell described the Soap Bubble Sets as the “first-born” of its kind, and the series would occupy the artist, off and on, for the next three decades. Reflecting on the series in 1948, Cornell describes: “Soap Bubble Sets Shadow boxes become poetic theatres or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime. The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets—a connotation of moon and tides—the association of water less subtle, as when driftwood pieces make up a proscenium to set off the dazzling white of sea-foam and billowy cloud crystalized in a pipe of fancy” (J. Cornell, quoted in Objects by Joseph Cornell, exh. cat., Copley Galleries, Beverly Hills, 1948, via http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/99782).
Cloaked in a darkened background of ethereal blue, Cornell’s delicate shells seem to emerge from the primordial abyss, carrying the secret code that would become unlocked through the passing of countless millennia. Like the one-celled organisms from which all life evolved, Cornell’s Soap Bubble Sets are infused with ancient, unknowable mysteries of life itself.