A Magical Stumble Back in Time
Lorraine Martindale on Joseph Cornell and creating visual stories.
On a moonlit night in the winter of 1835 a Russian highway man halted the carriage of Marie Taglioni, and that enchanting creature commanded to dance for this audience of one upon a panther’s skin spread over the snow beneath the stars. From this actuality arose the legend that to keep alive this meaning of this adventure so precious to her, Taglioni formed the habit of placing a piece of artificial ice in her jewel casket or dressing table where, melting among the sparkling stones, it evoked a hint of the atmosphere of the starlit heavens over the ice-covered landscape.
— Joseph Cornell
When I encountered Joseph Cornell’s Taglioni’s Jewel Casket, I was immediately intrigued. It appears to be a jewelry box. Yet, it’s a work of art. Each item in the box plays a role in constructing the tale of Marie Taglioni, a legendary 19th-century ballerina. I imagine that Cornell created this box to live in Taglioni’s romantic period, or in her cultural memory. Just like Taglioni’s dancing created magic on her stage for her audience, Cornell creates magic for his viewer.
Cornell discovered Taglioni in art shops in Manhattan, in old books about the Romantic period. Through images of her fairy-like form, he was enchanted and transported. In Cornell’s story there is a delicate weaving between his imagining of Taglioni and her real past. He recreates her legend via his box. It’s similar to a literary writer’s re-creation of autobiographical details—using life to create story. Cornell’s work blurs fantasy and realism, and interweaves the ordinary and the extraordinary. He layers the flesh and the spirit. This box reflects his adventure into New York City—a discovery of romantic ballet traditions.
Cornell takes a real story about a ballerina and, as he recorded in his diary, he witnessed ice being spilled along the street in Manhattan, and this sparked the fantastical arrangement of objects in Taglioni’s Jewel Casket.
Lorraine Martindale lives in Los Angeles and has an MFA from the New School.
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was an American artist and filmmaker. He is one of the pioneers of assemblage. Tagioni’s Jewel Casket (1940) is one of many assemblages the artist created to commemorate famous ballerinas. It is held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.