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Untitled (Bird)

A work made of box construction.
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York

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  • A work made of box construction.




Joseph Cornell
American, 1903–1972

About this artwork

This box is deceptively simple, with its apparently rudimentary materials and construction. The wood cutout of a bird, unusually, does not have a colored print pasted onto it. It is constructed of natural raw wood, partially stained with a chalklike substance, similar to the interior walls of the box. The liming of the wood makes it resemble driftwood; within the Surrealist context, its heavily grained effect also recalls the long history of experiments with frottage and grattage by artists such as Max Ernst.

There is, however, a strict geometry to this box, to which even the toylike accoutrements scattered on the floor confirm. Square or rectangular forms dominate, though there are also circles (wood disk, ball, cork). The bird looks toward a wad of paper squares, probably already darkened with age and acidity when the box was constructed, nailed to the wall at left. The effect is of a tear-off wall calendar, or spiked receipts, or even old-fashioned toilet paper.

The key detail is the pair of arrows behind the bird’s perch, cut from very thin pieces of wood. Formally, the arrows echo the two dowels, which can move freely on the floor of the box like the disk and ball. The proximity of the arrows to the bird‘s breast suggests a variation on the theme of the bird as victim or target (see, for instance, Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943, Des Moines Art Center; New York 1980 –82, pl. XXIII); the relatively plain form of the bird and its whitish color also recall the white dove of peace. Symbolically, the arrows are richly associative. They recall the arrows on sign posts, as well as the black arrows in Giorgio de Chirico’s “playthings” paintings, like The Evil Genius of a King (1914; New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Maurizio Fagiolo dell’ Arco, L’opera completa di De Chrico, 1908-1924, Mil an, 1984, no. 68, ill.) or The Feast Day (1914, Chicago, Neumann collection; ibid., no. 67, ill.). But the conjunction of the arrows with the bird has an even stronger association with the national emblem of the American bald eagle, perched on olive branches and arrows. The effect is somewhat ambiguous: the box could be a simple, folksy version of the American emblem or it could be a critical comment on the immediate postwar era in the United States, with its witch hunts of those involved in so-called un-American activities.

— Entry, Dawn Ades, Surrealist Art: The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1997, p.52.


On View, Gallery 397


Modern Art


Joseph Cornell


Untitled (Bird)


United States (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.



Box construction


Stamped on back, upper right: RL


31.2 × 25.8 × 14.3 cm (12 1/4 × 10 1/8 × 5 5/8 in.)

Credit Line

Lindy and Edwin Bergman Joseph Cornell Collection

Reference Number



© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York

Extended information about this artwork

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