The Sleep of Reason – Joseph Cornell

For this post, I wanted to take a look at a local piece. Pictured below is Surrealists Joseph Cornell’s “Celestial Navigation of Birds” piece of work which can be found at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I am planning on going to the art museum over my spring break, so I thought having a sneak peak would be beneficial.


Cornell is known to have created similar “collage” boxes to this one. These boxes are intended to represent Cornell’s dreams based on my background knowledge of him (The Guardian Article). Now what does this box of glasses, as seashell, a marble, a stamp (with a butterfly on it), 6 blue circular papers, 2 pieces of wood, and 2 blue/white spheres have to do with birds (included in the title)?

The 6 circular papers look like astronomical maps of some variety, which relates to “celestial” in the title. The 2 blue/white spheres and marble resemble planets to me, also relating to astronomy. These all are circles in some shape or form. The bases of the glasses are also circular. However, the shape of the box is square These are all considered representations.

I was left scratching my head about a stamp, but the image of a butterfly relates to birds (in the title) in the aspect that both have wings and can fly. When butterflys and birds fly, what do these species look down from above? Representations? Squares and circles? The planets are above us too. It is interesting that the butterfly stamp is placed below the larger blue spheres but inside the glass. I interpret the glasses to be things that the birds (and butterflies) don’t see.

The two pieces of wood are different. One is natural and one is tampered with (chiseled by a human being). The natural piece of wood and the seashell (also placed first within the glasses) represent nature in regard to what birds see from above. The chiseled piece of wood, placed last, represents that birds have to see not only natural parts of the world, but parts where humans have taken over and knocked out some nature. The blue marble, placed in between the seashell and the stamp, could represent water, an area where human haven’t inhabited, but still have an effect on.

Based on Cornell’s background, he often dreamed of traveling. He did not travel much due to familial obligations. This box seemed to capture his dream of traveling from above. Perhaps he could look at this box to take him above the clouds, when he was indeed stuck on land.

The Guardian Article –


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