Sunday, December 21, 2008

Kirsten Hoving's "Joseph Cornell and Astronomy"

Kirsten Hoving is the Charles A. Dana Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Middlebury College. She is the author of Fables in Frames: La Fontaine and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century France.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Joseph Cornell and Astronomy: A Case for the Stars, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Joseph Cornell and Astronomy is part of an extended discussion of an image-text essay Cornell produced for View magazine that was published in 1943. In particular, I explore a "word tower" that Cornell created--an imaginary pagoda-shaped astronomical observatory for the imaginary child-astronomer, Berenice. The tower's visual form is a pagoda of typed words or parts of words that reflect the artist's life-long interest in gravity. On page 99 I explore the word tower's references to gravity by way of Mme Blanchard (an early balloonist who rose above the roofs of Paris), circus acrobats and trapeze artists who fly through the air, and even Blondin and Maria Spelterina, both nineteenth-century aerialists who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. I also examine other words in the word tower that suggest that momentary release from the bounds of gravity could also be found in the arts, with references to Carlotte Grisi's "aerial flights" and Charles Lamb's essay, "In Praise of Chimney Sweeps." Finally, I close with a paragraph that suggests that the word tower's kaleidoscopic variety of associations is meant to take us on a trip to Coney Island's Luna Park, one of the artist's favored haunts.

Page 99 is a snapshot of the book as a whole, which explores Cornell's creative process of "cross-indexing" and "compounded interest," to use two of his many terms for describing the imaginative leaps that inspired his works. In particular, it shows how Cornell's engagement with astronomy enabled him imaginatively to move back and forth in time and space, with nostalgic references to the past and scientific references to cutting-edge advances in modern science. In his work, he often combined past and present to produce complex, erudite works that encourage meditation on the stars and planets and our physical and spiritual relationship to them.
Learn more about Joseph Cornell and Astronomy at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue