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Experimentation in Film / The Avant-Garde

Seeing untapped artistic and, sometimes, revolutionary potential in film, artists and filmmakers take motion pictures into entirely new territory.


Rose Hobart

Joseph Cornell
(American, 1903–1972)

1936. 16mm film (color, silent with music track), 20 min.

Though he never lived or traveled outside of New York and his pronounced shyness kept him on the margins of society, Joseph Cornell made work that drew fellow artists to him and captivated viewers. Among the self-taught artist’s best-known creations were boxes in which he arranged various objects and materials—ranging from newspaper and magazine clippings to dolls and rhinestones to wire netting—into self-contained worlds. Cornell made many of these boxes in homage to the Hollywood and B movie divas he worshipped, working in the basement of the house he shared with his mother and brother. In his pantheon of stars was the actress Rose Hobart. For her, he made a film.

Cornell was an avid viewer and collector of films, but his homage to Hobart (titled Rose Hobart) was his first attempt at making a film. Its source was East of Borneo, a feature-length B-movie released in 1931. Hobart stars as a woman braving the jungle to find her alcoholic husband, who has become resident physician to a Rajah commanding a remote kingdom in Borneo. Cornell cut apart East of Borneo, excised nearly every scene not featuring Hobart, and reassembled the pieces into a 20-minute short centered entirely on its heroine. He edited into these scenes clips from other films, including a fleeting shot of people watching an eclipse; footage of an eclipse; and a slow-motion view of a sphere falling into a pool of water and setting off ripples.

Rose Hobart premiered in 1936 at the avant-garde Julian Levy Gallery. Cornell projected it through a blue-tinted lens and at a slowed speed, giving it a languorous, dreamy, underwater or nighttime feel. He also muted its sound, replacing it with a soundtrack of his own devising: repeating songs from a kitschy Brazilian record he picked up at one of the Manhattan junk stores he frequented to find materials for his art. The sum total of these manipulations is a film that functions much like one of Cornell’s boxes, in that it holds Hobart in a semi-suspended state in a surreal, hermetic world. Pinned in place like a precious specimen, she walks, gestures, and emotes, perpetually stopped by Cornell’s editing before she exits the frame.

Salvador Dalí, quoted in Brian Frye, “Joseph Cornell 1903–1972,” UbuWeb, http://ubu.com/film/cornell_rose.html.

A short film. Today, any film running for 40 minutes or less and therefore not considered long enough to be a feature-length film.

A person who directs or produces movies.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

A low-budget movie, especially one made for use as a companion to the main attraction in a double feature.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.

The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).

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

Derived from the French verb coller, meaning “to glue,” collage refers to both the technique and the resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued or otherwise affixed to a supporting surface.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.

Salvador Dalí’s Heated Response to Rose Hobart
Joseph Cornell premiered Rose Hobart shortly before MoMA opened Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, its first exhibition featuring Surrealist art. Many Surrealists had come to New York to attend the opening of their show at the Museum. Some, including Salvador Dalí, also came to the Julian Levy Gallery to see the program of films that their American peer was presenting. Dalí became extremely agitated during Cornell’s screening of Rose Hobart and overturned the projector. “My idea for a film is exactly that, and I was going to propose it to someone who would pay to have it made….,” he reportedly told Levy. “I never wrote it or told anyone, but it is as if [Cornell] had stolen it.”1

A Quiet But Influential Filmmaker
Joseph Cornell identified with no school of filmmaking and advanced no theories about the medium—he simply immersed himself in his materials and made work. He produced two kinds of films: collages, like Rose Hobart, assembled from cut apart and recombined existing films, and newly directed work, like Nymphlight (1957), composed of footage shot on the streets of New York in collaboration with other experimental filmmakers, including Stan Brakhage, Rudy Burckhardt, and Larry Jordan. The work of Louis and Auguste Lumière and other early French filmmakers particularly intrigued Cornell. And his films, in turn, intrigued and influenced his peers and younger generations of artists.