About This Artwork

Joseph Cornell
American, 1903–1972

Untitled (Sequestered Bower), c. 1948

box construction with amber glass
15 1/2 x 12 1/8 x 4 7/8 in.
Signed on back, lower right: Joseph Cornell
Inscribed on back, upper left: Joseph Cornell / undated

Lindy and Edwin Bergman Joseph Cornell Collection, 1982.1862

Art © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The title Sequestered Bower commonly attributed to this work seems to derive from Cornell’s humorous description of one of his Owl Boxes, in a diary note of July 10, 1948, as “Large SEQUESTERED BOWER “ (Cornell Papers, AAA, reel 1058; cited in Dawn Ades, “The Transcendental Surrealism of Joseph Cornell,” in New York 1980–82, p. 41). The “habitat” of bark and dried moss further links this box to Cornell‘s Owl Boxes (Untitled (Large Owl)and Untitled (Lighted Owl)) and suggests that it was made during the same period. The substitution of a blonde, naked, female plastic doll with painted red lips for the owl, whose habitat she occupies, is startling. The box is disturbing on several levels. The contrast between the owl in its natural habitat and the doll/woman, whose appearance is as emphatically artificial as her setting is unnatural, produces an unusually jarring effect. Is she to be understood as displacing the owl or as being herself trapped or displaced? The ambiguity of the figure—child‘s toy but also child-woman – is underlined by the mirrors hidden inside the bark and placed at an angle on either side of her, which allow her to be viewed from the side. This mode of presentation is redolent of a strip club rather than of the vanitas or memento mori theme, which often included a mirror and was linked to the Owl Boxes. The idea of the femme-enfant hints at a premature sexuality which inevitably suggests a connection with Hans Bellmer and Balthus. Cornell would certainly have been aware of Bellmer’s articulated Poupee; photographs of the doll had earlier been reproduced in the French Surrealist journal Minotaure (see Hans Bellmer, “Poupee: Variations sur Ie montage d’une mineure articulee,” Minotaure 6 [Winter 1934–35], pp. 30-31; Bellmer’s Jointure de boules in Minotaure 8 [1936], p. 9; and an untitled photograph by Bellmer of the Poupee, de fenceless, in a wooded environment, which was published adjacent to Cornell ‘s Glass Bell, in Minotaure 10 (1937, p. 34).

However, rather than emulate Bellmer’s violent dismantling of the female doll‘s body, Cornell left his doll intact. There is just a suspicion here that Cornell is making a faintly ironic protest at Bellmer’s over-explicit and aggressive works; he was uneasy with the “darker” side of Surrealism, which he saw in the work of Max Ernst and surely in Ballmer. The manicured primness of this doll, with its overlarge head, in its grim setting, provides such a strong contrast to Bellmer’s Poupee that it is hard not to find humor in it.

Cornell made two other boxes that offer close comparisons with this one, both of them now in The Museum of Modern Art, New York: Untitled (Bebi Marie), a larger box of the early 1940s containing a dressed doll immured in an undergrowth of frosted twigs; and Untitled (Melisande) of 1948/50, in which a naked doll appears through a small square opening in a box surrounded by moss or bark, as if buried alive (New York 1980–82, pl. VIII and no. 167, ill., respectively). Cornell supposedly took the doll in Untitled (Bebe: Marie) surreptitiously from his sister Betty (Elizabeth Cornell Benton). These boxes share the disturbing aspect of Untitled (Sequestered Bower, but not the further dimension of humor.

Although immured in a forest enclave, the doll in the Bergman box seems an unlikely Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty. It should be noted, however, that she is the type of doll whose eyes close when she is tilted back ward, and unlikely as it may seem, given the fragility of the other materials in the box, this raises the possibility that this box, too, is a kind of toy: a Sleeping Beauty toy.

— Entry, Dawn Ades, Surrealist Art: The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1997, p.55-56.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

New York, ACA Galleries, Joseph Cornell: Boxes and Collages, 1977, no. 11, as Sequestered Bower.

Chicago, Joseph Cornell, 1980-82, traveled to London, Düsseldorf, Florence, Paris, and Chicago, exh. cat., no. S-27, as Sequestered Bower.

Ownership History

Bequeathed by artist to his niece Helen Batcheller, New York, 1972; sold via the ACA Galleries, New York, to Lindy and Edwin Bergman, Chicago, 1980; given to the Art Institute, 1982.

View mobile website