Brain Pickings

Dime-Store Alchemy: Joseph Cornell’s Surrealist Shadow Boxes

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Finding surrealist inspiration in found objects, or what a parrot has to do with aesthetic theory.

Joseph Cornell is often considered the first and greatest American surrealist, said to have influenced creators as diverse as iconic French dadaist Marcel Duchamp and beloved speculative-fiction novelist William Gibson. An artist and filmmaker, he is perhaps best-known for the intricate, mysterious boxes he created druing the 1930s through 1960s — bizarre and beautiful assemblages of dime-store tchotchkes and remnants of once-beautiful objects, placed in meticulously hand-crafted small cabinets. Today marks the paperback release of Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell — a fascinating long-out-of-print book that explores the eccentric genius of the artist through the insightful and often obsessive lens of the poet Charles Simic, who examines eight of Cornell’s most remarkable boxes. It is, more than anything, a meditation on beauty and the art of imagination. Simic’s writing itself is a metaphor for Cornell’s thoughtful collages, stitching together elements of texts by some of the artist’s favorite poets and authors. (Sound familiar?)

When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are our best guides. In writing the pieces for the book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image would turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same.” ~ Charles Simic

L'Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode, cours élémentaire d'histoire naturelle, 1940

Untitled (Pink Palace), ca. 1946-1948

Untitled (Bebe Marie), early 1940s

Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), 1936

Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945

What makes Dime-Store Alchemy most exceptional is the elegant parallel between the poetry of Cornell’s work and that of Simic’s narrative interpretation of it, at once an embodiment of and commentary on the power of remix in creation.

Images via WebMuseum, Paris

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The Night Life of Trees: Exquisite Handmade Illustrations Based on Indian Mythology

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What ancient Indian mythology has to do with fair-trade entrepreneurship and the timeless love of books.

If there ever was a project that reclaimed “authenticity” and “innovation” from their present status of fluff-lined buzzwords and into a genuine ethos, it would be South Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who for the past 16 years has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books. Crafted by local artisans in their fair trade workshop in Chennai, the books are hand-bound and each page is painstakingly screen-printed by hand using traditional Indian dyes, whose fresh earthy scent gently oozes from the gorgeous pages of the finished book.

Tara’s crown jewel is the magnificent The Night Life of Trees — the kind of large-format tactile treasure you take into your hands and never want to let go. It’s based on the ancient mythology of India’s Gond tribe, who believe that during the day trees serve to nourish and protect the Earth’s creatures, but it’s at night when they come into a life of their own. The breathtakingly beautiful illustrations, screen-printed on thick and textured black paper, come from three renowned Gond artists and blend the whimsical stories about the spirits of the Sambar tree with the practical uses of trees in Indian life, woven together into a delicate lace of magic and mundanity that poetically captures the duality of existence.

Take a peek inside the book’s beautiful pages, but bear in mind the camera and the screen don’t do any justice to their rich, textured splendor, which remains lost in digital translation.

The book comes in a number of limited-edition runs of 2000, each featuring a different artwork on the cover and hand-numbered on the back.

A multisensory delight with a soul-warming story, The Night Life of Trees is a pinnacle of breathing new life into ancient traditions and timeless storytelling with a modern entrepreneurial ethos. Above all, it’s a moving manifesto for the mesmerism of the paper page in the age of e-everything.

Artwork courtesy of Tara Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Queenslander: Gorgeous Vintage Australian Illustrated Covers

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Visual vignettes of the mundane and the monumental from 1920s and 1930s Australia.

Between 1866 and 1939, The Queenslander made a weekly summary of the Brisbane Courier, now The Courier Mail, newspaper available to the regional and outlying areas of Australia’s Queensland state. These stunning illustrated covers from the 1920s and 1930s, culled from the State Library of Queensland public domain collection on Flickr Commons, offer beautiful depictions of life, from the mundane to the monumental, with vignettes ranging from the daily grind in Queensland to major local and national events.

For more vintage Australian design goodness, don’t forget the charming 1978 animated film One Designer, Two Designer, comically exploring what makes good and bad design.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.