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His World of Wonder

Just imagine how it would feel to step behind the glass and explore every angle of the world’s great works of art. Robert Lehrman, JD ’76, realized that dream for art lovers this past December when he published a technology that enables viewers to experience artistic masterpieces from the comfort of their own homes.

Lehrman, whose museum-quality collection of American artist Joseph Cornell’s work is among the most comprehensive in the world, spent three years working with England-based Cognitive Applications to develop a state-of-the-art companion DVD-ROM to accompany his recently-published Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay… Eterniday (Thames & Hudson, 2003). Created to celebrate the centennial of the late artist’s birth, the lavishly illustrated book and interactive DVD-ROM have received rave reviews and were cited by The Washington Post Book World as one of the best gift items for 2003.

One of the nation’s leading collectors of contemporary art, Lehrman is a long-time fan of the work of Cornell, who is famous for his unique shadowboxes and collages containing texture, sound, motion, and imagery. “He created exquisitely crafted worlds from everyday items like toys, maps, marbles, shells, and rings,” Lehrman says. “These three-dimensional works, with their many moving parts, are meant to be handled, and living with them has allowed me a special kind of relationship with Cornell’s constructions, which I wanted to make available to others.”

The DVD-ROM, titled The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell, showcases 250 of Cornell’s finest box constructions, collages, films, and publications. Its interactive aspects make the viewer feel as if he or she is actually traveling around and within the boxes. “The technology offers unprecedented access to Cornell’s work, providing three-dimensional views of his shadowboxes, and allowing viewers to explore the boxes, their texts, texture, sounds, movements, and detailed imagery as if the objects were in their hands,” says Lehrman. “They possess a mysterious and spiritual presence—a poetry and vitality—that you lose when you place the works behind glass.”

Lehrman, who has served as the chairman of the board of trustees of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden for the past five years, says that his passion for art was cultivated as a young boy growing up in the nation’s capital. “As a native Washingtonian, my interest in art was nurtured by the opportunity to visit some of the world’s best art museums for free on a regular basis,” he says. “After I graduated from GW Law School, I promised myself that I was going to follow my heart, which led me to art.”

He worked for a while in entertainment law before shifting gears to devote more time and attention to building his extensive collection of American and European contemporary art—which includes 40 of Cornell’s shadowboxes and 25 of his collages. Lehrman also is president of the Jacob & Charlotte Lehrman Foundation Inc., which supports community services, education, health care, and cultural activities, predominantly in the Washington area.

Lehrman is thrilled with the art world’s response to the DVD-ROM and hopes that its applications are far-reaching. “We’ve gotten praise that exceeds our greatest hopes and aspirations,” he says. “The museum community, which tends to be understandably skeptical of information technology replacing the actual experience of viewing the work itself, has celebrated the extraordinary richness of our new prototype and the access that it promotes.”

The book, too, is receiving acclaim, and strong sales recently led to a second printing.

As he brings the life and work of Cornell to center stage, Lehrman continues to derive great joy from the artist’s collection. “Joseph Cornell’s work is so compelling,” he says. “He loved the idea of the imagination as a springboard to the vast worlds of wonder. That’s his gift to us. It’s very gratifying to be able to share that with the broader public, and to offer a unique window into Cornell’s world.”

—Jamie L. Freedman

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