FOR A LONG TIME, it was the boxes I most admired—those small, encased worlds that revive my childhood affinity for dollhouses and puzzles, the three-dimensional collages that poet Charles Simic called “dime-store alchemy.” But lately it’s Joseph Cornell himself I’m drawn to. The lean, angular man with the chiseled face and quiet demeanor who lived in Queens in a small white house with his mother and brother.
It is this Cornell I am thinking about now, the one whose brother, Robert, born in 1910, had cerebral palsy. I think of this because my own younger sister, born in 1958, has the same condition. She arrived two months prematurely, and although the exact circumstances of her birth are now buried with our parents, it seems she experienced oxygen deprivation, as may have been true of Robert Cornell, and that this deprivation led to the brain (cerebral) damage that has meant a lifetime of struggle. I resist the word suffering, although lately it seems as if suffering outweighs struggle. My sister is now in her sixty-second year, an ordained minister and fine writer whose most recent maladies include a failed bladder and early-stage breast cancer with its attendant complexities, including unhealed pressure wounds where she sits and transfers from wheelchair to bed or toilet. She struggles and suffers.
I don’t know the particulars of Robert Cornell’s suffering, although biographers note that Robert was never able to walk (he spent his life in a wheelchair) and spoke with difficulty, in what to most outsiders sounded like grunts. A photograph of him with his older brother, taken in childhood and published in Utopia Parkway, Deborah Solomon’s biography of Joseph, shows Robert and Joseph on the sidewalk in front of their home in New York. Robert is short and pale. He sits, hunched, on a three-wheeled scooter, one hand coiled around its handlebar, back curved into a C. His cheeks are full, eyes narrow, hair close-cut and light brown, distinct from his brother’s thick crown of wavy black locks. The younger Cornell wears stockings and what look to be spats but may be some kind of orthopedic shoe, ca. 1915. He elevates both feet at the heels as if to say, “I can’t use these anyway, what’s the point.” The pose is timid, uncertain, nearly apologetic. Joseph crouches behind Robert on firm feet, sturdy and angular.
To the left of the brothers, a curious lawn ornament leans in toward Robert’s scooter. It consists of a long spike, rooted in the earth and topped by an artificial bird whose beak all but touches the boy’s hand. It is the same kind of painted bird that will turn up repeatedly in Joseph Cornell’s work.
FROM THE MOMENT Robert was born, Joseph and his two sisters were taught that sacrifices would be expected of them. The sisters responded by eventually marrying and moving away, but Joseph stayed behind. On those few occasions when he left home—he rarely traveled far or long, and never outside the United States—he kept in touch with Robert by letter.
Some, not all, of this is familiar to me: the tension between duty and desire, the priority given to the needful child, the ways her physical requirements dictate family structure and schedule. How, at an early age, a sibling learns to do for the one who cannot: pick up their toys, cut her food, wheel him outdoors to see the trains.
Joseph Cornell washed and shaved his brother. He prepared his meals. He made up nicknames for Robert: Snicker, Doodab, Booger. The two played checkers and Parcheesi together. They invented ways to make light of Robert’s dependence. When the younger man had to go to the bathroom, he summoned his brother by calling out, “I need the funny papers.” At night, Joseph sat beside Robert and read to him from the Bible and from the Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy, convinced that prayer could alleviate his brother’s torment.
An excerpt from Joseph’s journal, January 24, 1947, written when he was forty-three and Robert thirty-seven: Shaved and dressed and waved good-bye to Robert on porch (Mother shopping). Waved to Robert from train.
Both men loved trains. They lived near a branch of the Long Island Rail Road, and on pleasant days Joseph would take Robert out to a stretch of the tracks where they could see the locomotives go by, trailing passenger and freight cars. And there on the living-room floor of their mother’s house—the famed bungalow on Utopia Parkway where the older Cornell built his boxes and collages in the basement and the younger Cornell sat upstairs in his chair sketching cartoon animals and tinkering with radio sets—the two brothers assembled model trains on the floor and watched them spin round and round.
“Blessed brother,” Joseph called Robert. Reading Solomon’s biography, I wonder whether Joseph gave or received care from his brother. Was not the task of tending to Robert’s needs as fierce an act of reverie as those intricate constructions Joseph worried into shape in his underground studio? Day in, day out, salvaging what others might discard, coupling this remnant to that, taking flotsam and reimagining it, then wheeling the whole out into the sunshine to see the trains go by. And they do go by: other people’s lives, hurtling here and there, every day, on their way to something urgent, to work and wealth and health and acquisition, while the two brothers sit and take in the spectacle.
BETWEEN THE TWO BROTHERS in the house on Utopia Parkway is a third figure: the mother (the father having died when both boys were children). She too inhabits the house where Robert Cornell sketches his animals and Joseph builds his contraptions and downs ice cream and sugared treats. Helen Cornell is dominant, resentful, oppressive. She ignores Robert, berates Joseph. To the few women who come to visit her oldest son—Joseph’s relationships with women were chastely erotic, needy, childlike—the mother is a tyrant.
“I thought of his mother as a big oak tree blocking the door,” said the art historian Dore Ashton, who remembered Helen Cornell glaring at her from across the room as she and Joseph conversed.
Another friend saw that Joseph’s mother treated him “like a not-very-well-behaved young person, nagging him about the Venetian blinds. None of his works were in the house.” Helen Cornell had no apparent interest in them.
Solomon believes Helen inflicted guilt on all three of her able-bodied children. The girls escaped; Joseph endured. He took refuge in Robert. A physician who knew both men recalled Joseph’s intense attachment to his brother. “Robert was like Joseph’s child…the only tangible warmth.” Together the two brothers watched and worshipped movie queens, worshipped Mary Baker Eddy, who believed that material existence had no connection to a person’s spiritual being. In the kitchen he called his observatory—a place for gazing at stars—Joseph cooked colorful meals for his wheelchair-bound sibling, scattering lilac-colored violets into bowls of mushroom soup. He is known to have stored at least one “special” box in a blanket chest in Robert’s room.
Joseph also kept a journal that ran to nearly 30,000 pages, many of them recounting his own dreams. He believed that in dreams, as in waking life, the mind receives glimpses of sublime truths, divine mysteries it was his duty to solve in the art he constructed by day.
In some of his dreams, small animals seemed to know him and to need his protection.
His most important dreams were the ones he had of his brother.
THE OUTSIDER BEHOLDS the wizened figure, the lopsided smile and gnarled limbs, the incapacity. The sibling sees the human being: beloved brother, doting friend. Instead of the whispered voice and lowered head, the fierce concentration on a task so ordinary few bother to register it (unlocking a door, cutting a sandwich, going to the toilet), the sibling sees the self-possessed sister. Safe, sheltered, known. To the outside world, she is a disability. To the inside, a Renaissance princess.
Perhaps it was Robert who taught Joseph Cornell what it means to be confined in a box, hands pressed against the glass; who showed him how to care for things almost too delicate for this world. Feathers, sand, copper coils, cockatoos, tin foil, old dolls, glass vials.
Was there no resentment?
When my sister was small, my grandmother sometimes wheeled her outdoors so we could all play together. But my brother and I would grow bored and run off into the yard and leave our sister stranded in her chair. Her face would collapse, my grandmother told me a few years later. I don’t know if she said this to me merely to share the story or to try to alter my behavior.
I have spent much of my life working to keep my sister safely walled away from me, as if she were still an infant in the incubator, kept alive by artificial air and light until she can survive by herself in the world. Periodically she returns to the box (call it rehab, surgery, clinic, ambulance, hospital room) where she is revived until the next relapse or collapse, the incubation period never really abandoned. I come and stand outside and reach in through the smallest of openings to comfort, reassure, rearrange, feed, soothe. Unwilling or unable to rupture, as Joseph Cornell did, the glass partition separating my sibling’s suffering from my freedom.
Yet even he had his lapses. Once, when a pretty brunette came to visit, Joseph got so distracted he fed Robert a frozen T V dinner. While the artist attended to his guest, his brother chipped away at the icy offering.
IN HIS EARLY FIFTIES, Robert began to suffer epileptic seizures. By then Helen Cornell had gone to live with one of her daughters, and Joseph was left to care for his brother alone, with occasional outside help. Robert ultimately became so frail Joseph had to move him, too, into their sister’s home in Westhampton. Less than two months later, Robert caught a cold, which led to pneumonia.
On Friday, February 26, 1965, the two brothers spoke by phone. Robert’s voice was barely audible. After he hung up, Joseph went into the basement of the house on Utopia Parkway where he and Robert had spent their lives, and he put on a recording of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto. Within the first few measures he knew something had changed. Robert Cornell died at 1:30 that afternoon. Joseph spent much of the day reading and rereading the final chapter of Ecclesiastes: “The silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.”
That evening Joseph ate poached eggs and toast and drank calico tea. The following day, he turned to Matthew, chapter 13:52, in which Christ reminds his disciples that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
In his brother’s “sadly unsung” life, Joseph saw treasure. He now turned to curating his brother’s work. In the next year, he dedicated himself to compiling and preserving the hundreds of sketches Robert had left behind. Drawings, in pencil and crayon, of animals Joseph thought “adorable poetry”: a rabbit in a bow tie, a Mouse King, a hippopotamus. These Joseph framed by themselves or worked into his own collages, so that even after his brother’s death, he continued to care for Robert by tending his work through what he called a Memorial Collection, to the despair of dealers and collectors. Joseph’s art became Robert’s—or was it the opposite?
In a dream, Joseph heard Robert ask, “Haven’t I always been here with you—have I ever really been absent?”
On February 25, 1967, the night before the second anniversary of his brother’s death, Joseph had “an especially rare dream” in which he saw Robert walk and asked him to go into another room “for the pleasure it gave me of him being able to walk.”
I know dreams like these.
AN EARLY CRITIC WROTE of Joseph Cornell’s boxes that they were “useless for any purpose except to delight the eye and everyone’s desire for a lovable object.” Throughout his career the artist enjoyed dismantling and then reassembling his work “to take up the slack in it,” as he said. In the process of destroying a box, he claimed, he could sometimes glimpse its perfection.
The last book Joseph mentioned reading was Vincent Van Gogh’s Letters to Theo, in which the Dutch painter tells his brother he feels imprisoned by poverty, prejudice, disappointment, misunderstanding, melancholy. “Do you know what makes the prison disappear?” Vincent asks Theo. “Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison.”
I have dreamt that my sister and I were together in a farmers market, and we were both walking. She was straight and slender, with chin-length hair and a pretty face. She had a slight limp but nothing more. I said to her, “You ought to walk more, you’d get stronger.”
I have dreamt that my sister is dancing. A lithe version of herself, free from the confinements of her body. (That container about which I have more than once heard my sister sob, “I’m so sick of this body that doesn’t work, doesn’t do anything.”) In my dream, she is both recognizable and not: a painted bird, twirling in space.
LESLIE STAINTON is the author of two nonfiction books, Lorca: A Dream of Life and Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts. Her writing has appeared in the Sun, the American Scholar, and Michigan Quarterly Review, among others. She is at work on a book about her slaveholding ancestors, the Scarletts of Georgia. More at lesliestainton.com.