Second Hand Rose

Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) is the first film appropriation work ever made, and like some other ‘originals’, remains the best; extremely beautiful, and enigmatic almost to the point of collapse. It is in many ways ‘about’ nothing; perhaps the closest I have ever seen to an artist making a film of substance without content.

Many artists have striven to make contentless works, but all have failed — because the emptiness of these works is their content. And the longer this quest goes on, the further away is the goal of ‘no-mind’ (because that is probably what is being desired). What we get instead is some kind of conceptual art, and the more academic this becomes, the more content (read: thought) is generated.

But Rose Hobart is not a conceptual work of art. Of course, it is, in the sense that it can be described as an idea — a remix of East of Borneo, leaving mainly just the shots of Rose Hobart, plus a clip of an object falling into water filmed in slow motion, all played at ‘silent’ speed (18fps vs 24fps) through a violet (previously rose) filter, accompanied by a soundtrack of appropriated and repeated popular tunes. Moreover, it has been the inspiration for countless subsequent works of film appropriation, most of which can be fairly termed conceptual. But although Cornell’s work can be described in these conceptual and material terms, to do so does little to convey the experience of actually watching it.

So what is it about? Rose Hobart, obviously. But what about her? Her beauty, clearly. So there is a kind of voyeurism — but it is not really sexualised. And the subject is not objectified — at least, not in the usual sense that we are asked to forget that the body has a mind. But what is she thinking? We have no idea, because there is no narrative — again, not in the usual sense of linear film narrative; it is more like a painting (or to be precise, a photomontage).

But the more I watch Rose Hobart, the more I notice another subject; there are two male lead actors, both of whom can be seen as stand-ins for Joseph Cornell. In fact, Charles Bickford, who plays the alcoholic husband in East of Borneo, bears a striking resemblance to Cornell — as a kind of masculinised version of the tall but rather frail artist. And the way Cornell edits the scenes with Bickford, he sometimes interchanges him with the suave Prince of Marudu, producing the suggestion of two sides of one character, or an alter-ego.

So is Rose Hobart a kind of voyeuristic fantasy, where Cornell could imagine himself in the place of the husband/prince to his muse? This is a bad question; bad because it reduces Cornell’s work to cheap psychology. Psychoanalytic film criticism has been very insightful, but if it cannot fully account for, say, the art of Hitchcock (which I don’t believe it can, at least not in its more reductive forms) it certainly can’t explain Rose Hobart. I don’t think that Joseph Cornell the artist wanted to be Charles Bickford, and thereby to possess Rose Hobart. Nonetheless, his film is suffused with desire.

So what did he want? We might get closer to this question by moving beyond the correspondence between Bickford and Cornell, and noticing the resemblance between Hobart and Bickford — both with wavy hair swept back from the face, and Hobart’s athletic build and masculine travelling garb suggesting an idealised, feminised, mirror image of Bickford. And if Cornell is Bickford, and Bickford is Hobart, then Hobart is Cornell.

So is Rose Hobart Cornell’s Rrose Selavy — an artistic alter-ego? Duchamp dragged up as Rrose is a conceptual act, naturellement, but as previously stated, Rose Hobart is not fundamentally a conceptual work of art.

I don’t think that Cornell wanted to be Rose Hobart in his mind, so much as he wanted to be in her world — or rather, the world of her film. That is, he desired to be in her world as he saw it. (To that extent, his presence, via the male character/s, is a kind of donor portrait.)

As C.S.Lewis put it, we want so much more — something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty… We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.¹

René Girard said ‘all desire is a desire to be’.²  Furthermore, he theorised that all desire is mimetic — we desire what others desire (and therefore, to have what others own, and to be what others are).

That our desires are not original is not an original idea; but whereas Marxist critiques of consumerism suppose that our ‘natural’ desires have been stolen from us by capitalism, and replaced by a counterfeit ideology, Girard suggests that human desires are always learned, one way or another, and thus always second hand.

What happens when we consider this in relation to Rose Hobart?

Theories of appropriation in art are generally based on the former assumption, whereby originality has been fatally compromised, and thus in need of deconstruction; this is the Duchampian tradition, now fully established academically (and financially — the market can easily incorporate the avant garde it seems, which is perhaps one reason Duchamp gave up the game of art in favour of chess).

However, a Girardian perspective, whereby mimicry is not simply imposed by external forces, but is intrinsic to human being, offers another way of understanding appropriation in art; not as a didactic tool, but as a means of agency — a kind of re-appropriation, if you like. Thus Rose Hobart is more camp than Rrose Selavy.

And it is within this campness that the Christianity of the work may be recognised. While Joseph Cornell was a Christian, his work does not obviously deal with Christian subject matter. Rather, we may see his Christianity performed through his work.

Christianity is inherently performative. Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ Luke 22.19

Furthermore, our performance is not original, but a reperformance — we copy Christ, who in turn was copying his Father. ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.’ John 5.19

So we make a performance of our imitation. Christianity is thus camp, not kitsch, because it is conscious of its performativity and lack of originality. Of course, as with all such imitation as resistance to oppression, there is also an unconscious aspect — otherwise it could not function as a defence against death. ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ Matthew 10.16

I am not claiming that this explains Cornell’s work, let alone Christianity, or even that these ideas are necessarily central to the faith (although they may be intrinsic to Girard’s approach). Nor am I suggesting that Christian artists are the only ones who can authentically work in this manner. Indeed, Kenneth Anger — after Cornell perhaps the most seminal artist to work with appropriation in film — is explicitly anti-Christian. But this opposition may in itself reflect a relation between appropriation, performativity, and Christianity.

– Mark Dean

[1] C.S.Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory‘, preached originally as a sermon in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on June 8, 1942
[2] René Girard, ‘Quand ces choses commenceront … Entretiens avec Michel Treguer’, Paris: Arléa, 1994, ISBN 2-86959-300-7, p32