Lack of formal art training actually freed Cornell to experiment with a variety of formats and containers during the 1930s and early 1940s. At first he transformed palm-sized, lidded paperboard boxes – originally designed for pills and jewelry or as scientific specimen cases – with paper cutouts and bits and pieces such as beads, toys, and pins. In search of greater scale and complexity, he turned to small antique wood chests. Many of these chests came with bottles and ready-made chambers, which Cornell put to new use, filling them with colored sands and liquids, coral, shells, costume beading, clippings from maps and books, and wood and rock fragments. The result was a group of boxes that suggest poetic cabinets of curiosities.
During the 1930s Cornell also began designing glass-paned boxes. Initially he relied on prefabricated paperboard boxes in which he mounted figurative cutouts behind glass. After mastering carpentry and woodworking techniques around 1936, he started making his own wood box constructions. Cornell called these early constructions “poetic theaters” and “shadow boxes.” Familiar with Victorian miniature toy theaters, he adapted the format to stage highly theatrical scenarios and tableaus.2
1Collage, Assemblage, and the Found Object, Diane Waldman,
©1992 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York
2 Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay…Eterniday
©2003 The Voyager Foundation, Inc.