Joseph Cornell at the RA

21 September 2015

Well, we went to the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy - shimmying in over the line just before the exhibition closes. 

Now - I've read rave reviews about this exhibition and so my expectations were very high. 

And, well there's no other way to put it, I was disappointed. 

We were not allowed to take photos so these are from the web. 

There is stuff about the artist elsewhere so I won't bore you with a biography except to say that he was from New York. Born at the turn of the last century he was a self taught artist, making assemblages, many of them 3 dimensional in little wooden boxes, from found ephemera sourced on ramblings around his native city. He was certainly ahead of his time as some of the compositions were very avant garde. 

Some of the work on display was exquisite - and I found myself wondering 'how  did he do that before PVA glue was invented?'

But overall the display was disappointing. I think the RA could have made more of it. Some gripes were over little things. For example the explanatory information was too small and inconveniently placed ( and in my view a bit, well, 'up itself', if you get my drift) and many of the exhibits, all behind glass I guess because they were so delicate, were too high up. 

But also the colour palette of the galleries was wrong. I have this overriding memory of 'duck egg gone wrong'. And I suspect that many exhibits were designed to be interactive. A few feeble films demonstrated this, but what a missed opportunity to commission a few new pieces that the public could handle or interact with. And I kept thinking back to the Grayson Perry exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago where the function of objects was so celebrated. I reckon Perry would have done a much better job with this. RA take note!

One funny thing though, there I was, squinting at one of the pieces, when I suddenly realised I recognised the person standing next to me. None other the Stephanie Redfern, and all credit to the lady ( for she meets loads of people every year) she recognised and remembered me. 

She has treated herself to RA membership so she had already seen the Ai Wei Wei exhibition (we couldn't, fully booked but RA members can just go in) and was going to try the Cornell again the following day to do it justice.

Anyway, pocketing our disappointment and heading towards Covent Garden, we happened upon the National Portrait Gallery.  Time was short - it was due to close - so we hot footed it up to the Tudor gallery. And that was a wholly better experience and well worth seeing. 

The Pictures, some of them iconic images of the Tudor Royals that everyone would recognise, were well explained - information without being patronising - and the gallery was well lit and the pictures hung in a very complementary way. 

Also, you could get right up and see how some of the detail in the textiles was painted. I studied the lace on one dress for quite a while. Delicately and patiently executed. 


  1. Glad I didn't go to the Cornell from your description. I went to the Ai Wei Wei today ( booked weeks ago) and thought is was very powerful and provocative . I' m really glad I went before I had read any reviews, so hope you do get to see it.

    1. We could not get tickets, booked well in advance, but Steph had seen it before the Cornell and really liked it. I will have to try again.


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