Biography is something I very rarely take up in my reading (I much prefer memoirs, or personal diaries and journals whenever possible), and it's even...moreBiography is something I very rarely take up in my reading (I much prefer memoirs, or personal diaries and journals whenever possible), and it's even more rare for me to actually read a biography all the way through, usually opting instead to read chapters or sections specific to my interests.
I had fully expected this to be more or less my experience with Utopia Parkway, currently the only biography available on the life of nonconformist artist Joseph Cornell, whose work I have become increasingly enchanted by over the last few months and have been studying in greater and greater detail. But I quickly became so engrossed in the specifics of Cornell's life that I ended up reading the whole thing, and it's probably the closest I've experienced to a "page turner" in a good while—I could hardly put it down.
Deborah Solomon definitely had her work cut out for her by taking on this subject. In the various accounts and analyses of Cornell's work and life I've read so far most seem to struggle with accounting for the complexity of Cornell's utter unconventionality—in some he comes off as a whimsical, almost child-like recluse under the domineering thumb of his "dear Mama," in some he comes off like a marginalized hermit willfully on the fringes of art and society, and yet other descriptions portray him as a creepy voyeur-type whose largely repressed sexual urges drive his work, which attempts to dominate the various female figures he held as his muses. As Solomon proves, Cornell was indeed all of these things, but also many more—all of these characterizations are like individual facets that change shape and color and even disappear with just the slightest change of perspective. Cornell emerges as an endless and endlessly baffling bundle of contradictions, and she does a remarkable job of accounting for many of them, which is often done by her adamance to contextualize both Cornell's life and the art that it inspired within larger social and artistic movements.
One review currently on this site found this book "kind of a downer, about a sad and very limited life," a description that rather took me aback, because as we find out through Utopia Parkway, Cornell's life can be described as such in only the most limited of ways—what is remarkable is how rich of a life he seemed capable of creating for himself, largely within the carefully controlled confines of his own home. But frankly, he managed to know just about everyone (from Duchamp to Breton to Toumanova to Sontag to Yoko Ono and just about anybody who's anybody in between). Which is ultimately what proves to be so inspiring: so many life stories of famous people and artists in particular seem to involve extensive travels, glittering parties, intense heartbreaks and ecstasies in equal alternating measure, all of the glamorous, easily romanticized trappings of what many of us like to consider "REAL living." Cornell points to possible alternatives, and how richness of the mind, creativity and great accomplishment can take other forms as well.
This probably isn't the ideal place to start one's explorations of Cornell's work (it's much more enriching when one at least has some idea of some of the work Solomon constantly alludes to), but an essential supplement for anybody who's already a fan.(less)
I finished reading this book almost exactly a year ago. And in the year that has since passed, I have attempted to wrap my head around everything meti...moreI finished reading this book almost exactly a year ago. And in the year that has since passed, I have attempted to wrap my head around everything meticulously laid out in the 450 pages of tiny black print that make up this book. I find that I grapple with the knowledge I gained here more often than I could have possibly imagined. You know how people use solar eclipses to glance directly at the sun? Well, I have found that it is through this book that I have started to honestly fathom the horrific nature of the Second World War, in all of its crippling, incomprehensible intensity. It has become, quite simply, the loophole upon which I can relate to things I previously only knew but had never actually felt.
The Louvre, post evacuation
Confiscated Jewish art and property in Paris
Considering the sprawling nature of the subject matter—Hitler and Goering's insatiable art collecting addiction, the stunning evacuations of the Louvre and the Hermitage collections, the "legal" seizure of Jewish art collections and property, the marginalization of "degenerate" modern art and artists, the meticulous destruction of the cultural heritages of Poland and other Slavic countries, the Nazi occupation and plunder of Italy, the tireless work of the American Monument Men, etc, etc—Lynn H. Nicholas does an admirable job with her cobwebby material that constantly threatens to spin in countless directions, organizing it into dense but generally cohesive chapters. And along the way, she packs in shocking anecdotes that could inspire countless novels and films of their own: the boot print left on Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine after German soldiers found its hiding spot and unaware of the priceless art, ransacked the accompanying gold objects, two British reporters entering an occupied castle to interview some soldiers and coming face to face with Botticelli's gigantic Primavera, American soldiers discovering Hitler's personal art collection in a rural salt mine, and then staring at the Ghent Altarpiece and the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo in the darkness a full quarter of a mile underground.
What remained of the frescos at the Campo Santo
Original Tchaikovsky manuscripts tossed into the snow
Hitler, Herr Art-Collector-in-Chief himself
But more than anything, it's the stories of people that shine through. As just a single example (and one I found most moving): the description of the group of people who lived in the basement of the Hermitage during the Siege of Leningrad, in conditions so cold that frozen corpses could be stored unattended for months, subsisting on "jellied soup made of carpenter's glue." And then I nearly cried over the accompanying page describing the group of starving "not-so-young" women working every day in the building itself, chipping away with crowbars at the ice building up on the walls and floors after the windows had been shattered by bombs and gunfire. I honestly had to start confronting the "big" questions: how valuable is art? Is it ever worth more than human life? And what is it about it that inspired countless people to accomplish reality-defying feats to try and preserve it for future generations?
The images included above are from the really excellent documentary adapted from this book that was released in 2006, and I can totally see the temptation in skipping this labyrinthine book in favor of a concise two hour film. But inevitably, the film only skates on the surface of most issues, and doesn't even mention many others, including some of what I thought were the most moving parts of the book. But it does has its own set of advantages, namely the sheer impact of visual confirmation of the information. Needless to say, it's an excellent supplement to Nicholas's massive tome, if not really an adequate replacement.
Just after finishing this book, I read an amazing collection of poetry called In Praise of the Unfinished: Selected Poems by Julia Hartwig, a previously untranslated Polish poet who also tapped into something deeply emotional that I never really quite came to grips with either (which is why I never reviewed it here on GR). One reoccurring theme throughout the collection is regarding art itself in all of its multifaceted forms. And these few lines, I thought, got closest to articulating the inexpressible thoughts and feelings this book evoked for me, its precise eloquence doing more justice to this topic than I ever could, so I'll just end this rambling review with it:
“Art casts a spell summoning life so it can continue but its space extends to the invisible It is also an intelligence reconciling discordant elements with similarities It is brave because it seeks immortality by being—just like everything else—mortal”