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September 1, 2014, 12:37 pm

Exhibit brings unique collection to life

Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972) loved to meander through Manhattan’s secondhand bookstalls and antiquarian shops in search of books, old documents and faded photographs. One day, he came upon a French agricultural manual, the “Journal d’Agriculture Pratique,” from 1911. He took it home and began to work on the book, making cutouts through which one could view collaged elements, inserting images from old photographs and tipping-in classic paintings and transparent overlays. In the process, Cornell reinvented the French manual as an American masterpiece.

"Joseph Cornell's Manual of Marvels: How Joseph Cornell reinvented a French agricultural manual to create an American masterpiece” (Thames & Hudson, $80) is a unique multimedia collage box presentation of the voluminous handbook of advice for farmers. The turn-of-the-century manual is transformed by Cornell through intricate manipulations of its pages, ranging from foldings and cutouts to insertions of drawings and objects. These interventions turn the book into a unique artwork and an extraordinary example of Cornell’s particular working method.

While Cornell is internationally recognized as a modern artist, he was neither a sculptor, a draftsman nor a painter. He never had professional training. Born on Christmas Eve 1903, Cornell was the oldest of four children and was especially close to his brother, Robert, who had cerebral palsy. In the 1940s, Cornell became a member of the expatriate Surrealist circles in New York. Although he never identified himself with the movement, he is frequently considered to be one of the leading American Surrealist artists. To construct his objects, Cornell employed found materials such as antique photographs, magazine clippings, maps, and art reproductions, as well as an array of objects, from pipes and ball bearings to dolls and discarded commercial packaging. A self-taught artist, he also worked as a textile designer and graphic designer, and experimented with sculpture and film.

Produced in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this unique “Cornell box” includes a suite of facsimile pages from the book, together with a volume of scholarly essays and an interactive CD-Rom. “Cornell’s works are maps of the imagination, where connections among the most disparate things and ideas are drawn according to the imperious rules of memory and desire,” said Anna Vallye, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “In part because of the artist’s links to the Surrealist movement, and especially because of his friendship with Marcel Duchamp, Cornell’s work represents some of the best of the Museum’s collection, which also contains the largest holdings of Duchamp’s work in the world.”

Toward the end of his career, Cornell remained out of the spotlight tending to his family, with is brother, Robert, passing in 1965, and their mother in 1966. Cornell died of apparent heart failure in December 1972, a few days after his 69th birthday.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting an installation of works by Joseph Cornell in conjunction with the publication of a boxed set edition reprint through February 2013. For more information, visit the Museum's website at


Contact Tribune staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .