The Bel Canto Pet. Joseph CORNELL.
The Bel Canto Pet
The Bel Canto Pet
The Bel Canto Pet
The Bel Canto Pet
The Bel Canto Pet

The Bel Canto Pet

[New York]: First Day of Locust Song, 1955. Two variant copies: 12mo (6.25 x 4.75 inches; 159 x 121 mm). Identical settings of type and imposition, with varying wrappers, together in a cloth folding case:

First volume: [16] pages, including printed wrapper, stapled. On wove paper. No collaged materials tipped-in.

Second volume: [18] pages, including plain outer laid-paper wrapper with tipped-on printed title panel on pale blue laid paper. Text on wove paper. The original front printed wrapper of the first variant has been excised, with a plain laid paper wrapper mounted at the spine on a stub of the front wrapper. With two interior tipped-in collaged elements (both relief halftones cut from other publications: one black-and-white depicting singer Giulia Grisi in the role of Anna Bolena, the other color depicting a swallow). The pagination and imposition of text are identical to the first variant above: Here the rear wrapper of the preceding is found as the penultimate leaf within Cornell's added wrapper.

Provenance: From the collection of Cornell's assistant Alexandra Anderson. Item #404859

THE ARTIST MANIPULATES HIS WORK. These two variant copies — an unaltered and an apparently uniquely-altered version — of the second of Joseph Cornell's rare artists books (the first was MARIA from the previous year) were produced by the artist at his own expense and privately distributed to friends. Both of Cornell's artists books from the mid 1950s are devoted to legendary nineteenth-century sopranos — 'Maria' to Maria Malibran and the present work to Giulia Grisi. Cornell expressed his fascination with these two operatic stars, whose work is lost irretrievably, except in eye-witness accounts such as the one reproduced here from the American author Nathaniel Parker Willis.

'The Bel Canto Pet' describes a dinner attended by Grisi, during which she imitated the song of her pet mockingbird, who in turn imitated the singers present.

With a superb provenenance: These two variants were preserved in the collection of Cornell assistant Alexandra Anderson, who worked for the artist in 1964-65 ("I worried because he never ate anything ... I would prepare him dinner but he wouldn't touch it ... He once told me I was too grown up," quoted in Deborah Solomon, 'Utopia Parkway,' p. 308). Cornell gave these to her while in his employ. The first variant appears to have come from his remaining uncirculated copies, but the second is presumably a trial version, since in later examples Cornell decided not to remove the original cover, but rather to simply mount revised blue title labels over the original printed titles on the wrapper.

Cornell is known to have manipulated his work in this fashion, altering earlier forms to reflect an updated aesthetic. This is demonstrated in a letter to Charles Henri Ford, sent in August 1956, where Cornell writes: "Yesterday I sent you ... a note & also to Signor Wild (an improved) version of BEL CANTO." The previous note shared that "This edition is something I should never have undertaken. 3 hors textes by hand in each, and as the result of perfectionist bug, – 5 in the (baptismal) version that is enroute in this same mail to S. Wild. But the extra work is not richer, so much as softer and subtler (should not even be spoken of)" (in 'Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind. Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files,' ed. Mary Ann Caws, New York, 1993, pp. 214-5).

'The Bel Canto Pet' is in many ways a Cornell box in book form: its collaged elements entwined with appropriated text and one of his signature obsessions.

Scarce: From an unstated edition, often estimated to be about 100 copies (Solomon, p. 231). OCLC locates only three copies (Smith, Walker Art Center, and Getty), with two others found (Yale, and SI) among archival holdings. While 'Maria' is offered on the market with some regularity (a box of undistributed copies was apparently found after Cornell's death), 'The Bel Canto Pet' is far more elusive. The present copies are only the fourth and fifth that we trace in the trade or at auction, with none revealing Cornell's working methods as here.

See Daniel A. Starr #213 in 'Joseph Cornell,' McShine, Kynaston (editor, MoMA 1990).

Price: $20,000.00

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