April 1, 2010  |  Film
Pen Pals: Iris Barry and Joseph Cornell

Though I’m still a believer, I’m a bit too old to send a want list to Santa each year. But if I did, at the top of that list would be a Joseph Cornell box. Any box would do. Even one of the later collages from the 1960s would be just fine by me. But since Santa bestows linens and cooking utensils upon me these days, I keep my nose pressed against the glass on the Cornell boxes on exhibition at MoMA. (No, not really!)

Left: Joseph Cornell in his backyard in Flushing, New York, 1969. Right: Joseph Cornell’s home at 3708 Utopia Parkway, 1976

So imagine my excitement in 1995 when The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation donated a comprehensive gift of film materials made and collected by Joseph Cornell to MoMA’s Department of Film. In this collection are films made by Société Lumière, Georges Méliès, and Pathé Frères. These early film pioneers imbued their inventive cinematic efforts with magic, whimsy, fairies, and other-worldly adventures. Cornell—a sometimes mysterious figure in the New York art world who is best known for his collages, box constructions, and experimental films—was drawn to the escape that these enchanting moments of cinematic exploration afforded him while he remained firmly rooted to the middle-class landscape of Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens. If film-going was a treasured diversion for Cornell—who was also a frequent visitor to the Museum’s Library, Archives, and galleries and who engaged in lively, revealing, and surprisingly humorous correspondence with Museum personnel—then just imagine his delight in corresponding with Iris Barry, the first curator of the MoMA Film Library and one of the most influential personalities in the world of film as art.

While searching for documents in the Department of Film acquisition files, I recently came across a series of written exchanges dated 1938-1947 between Cornell and Barry, and I’d like to share that insightful exchange, which reveals the symbiotic kinship of museum and artist as Cornell encourages Barry to acquire some films from his collection.

Left: Letter from Joseph Cornell to Iris Barry on November 3, 1938. Right: Letter from Iris Barry to Joseph Cornell on December 2, 1938

November 3, 1938

Cornell writes Barry to inquire if three films from his personal collection had been viewed. Cornell’s films included a “French Indian subject” and two short films by Pearl White, the heroine in The Perils of Pauline film series. Gently prodding Barry, Cornell asks, “when you have a breathing spell” would she make her decision known? Referencing a prior conversation with John Abbott, Barry’s husband and the first director of the Film Library, Cornell adds that he had been assured “that the Museum would take care of me at the usual rate per reel, twenty five dollars I believe it was.”

December 2, 1938

Iris Barry responds, “I am so sorry to have kept you so long for an answer about the three films you so kindly let us examine.” Barry agrees that the Pearl White film The Paper Doll (1913) and the untitled Éclair-produced film about Native Americans were of interest for the collection. The condition of each print, 35mm and nitrate, was poor but Barry thought the film conservator could seek improvement by duplicating the elements if Cornell agreed to lend his prints as source materials. Barry offers Cornell “our usual price of…and shall be glad to hear if you are willing to accept this” however the actual monetary compensation is missing from the original 1938 carbon copy. The third film Cornell lent the Museum for viewing purposes, The Mad Lover (1912), was rejected for acquisition.

December 9, 1938

Cornell replies that he’d like to accept the offer for The Paper Doll and The Generosity of the Great Indian Chief Tarhokee (1910), previously referred to as a “French Indian subject.” Cornell suggests that Barry might consider showing these films in a public forum “with scholarly program notes written about them.” Cornell was a frequent and passionate filmgoer who enjoyed new releases from the Hollywood studios and was often in the audience at MoMA. Cornell’s cinefile tendencies are demonstrated in this line: “Speaking of the showings and their presentation, I wish you could know how much genuine, delicious pleasure I derived from the notes on the French primitives…. I am going to reciprocate some day soon by bringing in on 16mm one of my own Zecca’s L’Homme à la tête de veau (The Man with the Calf’s Head, 1908), astoundingly imaginative, (to me, at least, being unfamiliar with the scope of Zecca’s subject matter). If this little gem doesn’t contain the forerunners of the Keystone cops, I’ll eat it.” Ferdinand Zecca’s early French comedies predate the Keystone Cops’ antics. The usually reserved and retiring Cornell displayed an uncharacteristically cheeky sense of humor by daring Barry to watch the Zecca short.

The correspondence then appears to take a nearly two-year hiatus between late 1938 and early 1940. During this time, Cornell and his work grew of interest to Chick Austin, director of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut, and Cornell’s earliest box, Soap Bubble Set (1936), was purchased for the collection. This was Cornell’s first museum sale and he was conflicted about letting go of the box. In some way, Cornell may have tried to sabotage the sale by asking $300 for the construction; ultimately he was paid $60.

Frame enlargement from Rose Hobart. Joseph Cornell. 1936

February 12, 1940

Resuming the correspondence, Cornell asks if Barry might be interested in “acquiring an original 35mm positive print of Cripple Creek Bar-room, Edison, or a sequence (also 35mm original positive) of Victor Seastrom shown directing The Master of Man—about 1923 Hollywood.” Cornell’s familiarity with terms such as positive print, generally film-archive terminology that refers to a viewing copy or projection print, illustrates how his personal fondness for cinema begins to cross into a more acute pursuit. Another interesting question generated by the facts revealed in this letter is: how did Cornell obtain 35mm nitrate film prints? In the course of collecting ephemera to include in his boxes, Cornell also sought out footage from early cinema to be edited into new collage films such as Rose Hobart (1936), a fanatical homage to a silent-movie star that remains one of the first and most influential examples of repurposed art. Many of the films amassed by Cornell for his personal eclectic collection consisted of primitive cinematic works, scientific shorts, industrial films, and home movies. He purchased and scavenged for prints as well as negatives, was conversant with the junk merchants on the Lower East Side who sold discarded film footage by the pound, would even dig into garbage cans when he spotted abandoned reels of celluloid. His collecting was both opportunistic and deliberate; he set out to locate films made by those directors he admired and those starlets he fetishized, yet he was always in the market for delectable discoveries and rare tidbits.

October 23, 1947

Cornell writes again but begins his letter with“Dear Iris,” an informal greeting markedly distinct from previous formal salutations. Cornell is writing yet again to ascertain the whereabouts of his 35mm print of The Paper Doll and when he could expect its return. This request has been sporadically repeated since 1938. “Will you kindly inform me? And will you also kindly forgive this being just business?” he writes. The tone is decidedly meek, yet Cornell is a man on a mission for the return of his film material. The closing of the letter is also strangely atypical; here the artist signs off as “Joe Cornell,” a nickname he rarely used, yet one that befitted the easy temperament of this particular correspondence.

MoMA Shipping Invoice for the return of Paper Doll to Joseph Cornell

November 5, 1947

The correspondence concludes with a carbon copy of a receipt submitted in the file. Shipped to Joseph Cornell on this day was one reel of 35mm film contacting The Paper Doll with the notation “the above is Mr. Cornell’s property and will not be returned to us.” The reel was valued at $50 for insurance purposes.