before joseph cornell...
i had planned to do a week on the hans christian andersen museum, but i think i'll just give you one long post with a bit of everything. i went to the museum initially to see andersen's paper cut outs. i had seen images of these in a little exhibition booklet a friend showed me, and the reproductions were so poor, that i became obsessed with seeing them in person. i didn't really know much about andersen beyond the ugly duckling emperor's new clothes fairytales that everyone seems to know but most of the folks i know have never really read (myself included).
to begin the journey, instead of reading the fairy tales i decided to read his travel writings, simply because they were published by one of my favorite publishers - green integer. it was quite illuminating to read andersen's travel writings while traveling myself, and the book also gives one a real sense of andersen's personality. the best parts of the book - hearing him describe his first moments on a train or the first time hearing jenny lind sing - are wonderful; but to be honest, andersen doesn't really seem like someone i'd want to hang out with. i didn't notate it all, but he probably complains about something at least once a page, and he comes across as an extremely petty human. he was clearly insecure and a hypochondriac, unbelievably vain, completely self involved, and had a tendency towards being an incredible snob. he was obsessed with his appearances in newspapers, and he was definitely the center of his universe.
at first i was disappointed also in the fact that he seemingly hardly writes at all about things that might illuminate his works or process, until you realize that everything in his fairy tales is simply a re-telling of his own life's story. the fictional narratives come from his own obsession with small moments of engagement. a harsh word from a friend or critic would send him into fits, and it seems a lot of the fairy tales were ways of dealing with that hurt, anger, etc. the stories are ways of reconstructing a situation so it could resolve the way he needed it to - full of happiness, sadness, revenge, reward, etc. it's clear that he felt he was treated as an ugly duckling, even after he became famous. it's also clear that he viewed himself as a beautiful swan that the world should fawn over.
the cut outs fascinated me, because of their visual sophistication; as well as their technical combination of awkwardness and finesse. andersen writes about making these things while he was usually at parties or dinner tables and telling some of his stories. he was self conscious and nervous about these situations (feeling his poor background made him stand out in high society social gatherings); so while he told stories, he would also be cutting. it enabled him to focus more on the paper than on the people watching and listening. of course, there was also theatre involved... he finished the story and then unfolded the paper as a kind of "ta da!" moment. for me, these fragile maps of hand movements and quick thinking did not disappoint, and they hold quite a lot of visual magic. their tendency towards a kind of dark victorian surrealism and even sometimes abstraction are marvellous.
what i was unprepared for were the other aspects of andersen's art and craft makings. he made travel drawings, relatively crude, that were always sized to fit in his vest or jacket pocket. these were sketched in pencil at sights/destinations during the day (like field recordings), and inked later, in a hotel room or such. what is interesting about them is this idea that the pencil drawing is done while looking at a place, attempting to replicate a visual experience; while the ink is done from notation and memory, creating a new visual experience. you can see the differences between the two different "making moments" in each drawing. between the pencil and ink lines there is a lot of messy disconnect between vision and memory. andersen struggles to remember what a wispy pencil line might have been notating; and the awkwardness of the resulting ink line gives the drawings an outsider quality. on one hand they feel generic, on another they have the kind of crude sincerity. when they are more fragmented, they can also resemble some of beuys early drawings.
the above image an inkblot turned into a little person was the only one he seems to have done like this, but it is interesting to note that he met victor hugo, who did a ton of incredible drawings from stains and ink blots (some of the greatest visual work by a writer ever...)...
the biggest surprises for me, were andersen's collages. he made several collaged scrap/picture books for little girls, and also obsessively covered an 8 panel folding screen with collaged images. the screen looks very much like an early jess or bruce conner piece, and one could easily mistake it for a psychedelic or bay area beat era relic. the collage books are stunning and immediately bring to mind joseph cornell. their use of the space of a page, and images from various sources, with ink and cut outs along with found material, seems totally connected to cornell's best boxes, and also his late collages. they seem precursers to max ernst's collage novels as well.
by the time i was finished at the museum cornell seemed to have come to mind a lot. as humans on the outside they seem like opposites - andersen, almost royalty, traveling the world on the king's dime, and being an international celebrity for much of his life. cornell, largely obscure for much of his life, living with his sick brother and his mother, arguably having little social skills, and quietly going about his obsessive business in virtual solitude until late in life. on the other hand, both were kind of spinsters, both were obsessed with actresses and theatre, and there's absolutely no denying that they shared an approach to collage and to the poetic and mystical qualities of objects (andersen had pressed and saved flowers from both goethe and dickens gardens). i hope someone, someday, curates a show of both of their works.
what was so interesting about seeing the visual output of an artist who considered himself a writer, was the specific approach he had for each of his visual bodies of work, and how each served a different purpose and seemingly came from a different place. the drawings on one end of the scale, being the least personal and the most like snap shots; and the screen, the most obsessive and most personal, created to surround his bed.
i highly suggest clicking on the images here to see them larger. most of the images were taken from the museum's website - click here for a link to their online collections, which is amazing! my own photos, much like andersen's travel sketches hardly capture the things i tried to capture (and i think you can tell which are which!); as usual, have become something else...