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Surrealist Objects and Assemblage

Discover how everyday objects, arranged unexpectedly, became triggers for unlocking the subconscious mind.


Taglioni's Jewel Casket

Joseph Cornell
(American, 1903–1972)

1940. Wood box covered with velvet containing three rows of four glass cubes resting in slots on blue glass, glass necklace, jewelry fragments, and red, blue, and clear glass chips, 4 3/4 x 11 7/8 x 8 1/4" (12 x 30.2 x 21 cm)

The first of dozens of boxes Joseph Cornell made in honor of famous ballerinas, Taglioni’s Jewel Casket pays homage to Marie Taglioni, an acclaimed 19th-century Italian dancer. According to legend, Taglioni kept an imitation ice cube in her jewelry box to commemorate dancing in the snow at the behest of a Russian highwayman (a traveling thief). The box is infused with erotic undertones—both in the tactile nature of the materials (glass cubes, velvet, and a rhinestone necklace purchased at a Woolworth’s dime store in New York) and in the incident itself, in which Taglioni reportedly performed on an animal skin placed across the snowy road.

Although he spent his entire artistic career living and working in Queens, New York, Cornell drew inspiration from the European art he saw at the Julien Levy Gallery—the first in the United States to exhibit Surrealist work—and he often inspired the European Surrealists in turn. In a press release for a 1939 exhibition of Cornell’s work at the Levy Gallery, Salvador Dalí heralded it as “the only truly Surrealist work to be found in America.”

A literary, intellectual, and artistic movement that began in Paris in 1924 and was active through World War II. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s writings on psychology, Surrealists, led by André Breton, were interested in how the irrational, unconscious mind could move beyond the constraints of the rational world. Surrealism grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and artistic practices after World War I.

An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.