John Coplans (London, 1920 – New York, 2003) was 64 years old when he decided to make his naked body the only subject of his artistic work. Purpose that he carried out until two years before his death. Wrinkled, hairy, with the flaccidity and deterioration typical of age, he wriggled shamelessly in front of the camera, in an exercise of complete honesty in front of his audience. Magnifying the anatomy of his body, in permanent metamorphosis, each nook and cranny seemed to acquire a new meaning, while becoming a metaphor for the indivisible link between the flesh and the psyche. In the “less narcissistic manifestation of the art of self-contemplation,” as critic Laura Cummings would describe it.
Coplans burst onto the art scene, shaking up aesthetic conventions through a work that could be grotesque, funny or provocative, never sentimental or complacent. A direct photograph, full of meanings, of which the author himself came to ironize, warning that it was not exactly the one that collectors were looking for to hang above the sofa. There have been few occasions after the death of the author in which his work has been seen, hence the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation dedicates an exhibition to him, John Coplans, The Life of Forms. It is not a retrospective but it offers an overview of the British artist’s photography, which is complemented by a small selection of the work of those artists whose teachings, in one way or another, the author was incorporating into his own work, and to whom he dedicated a good part of his study within his work as an art critic. There we will find Walker Evans, Carleton Watkins, Lee Friedlander, Jan Groover, Weegee, Philip Guston and Brancusi. The sample is accompanied by a magnificent catalog where these influences are very well documented.
Although there are few examples of artists who have developed their work in the last years of their life, it should be noted that Coplans undertook his work with the background and prestige acquired through his work as critic, curator, museum director, and founder and magazine editor ArtforumIt was a bulwark of Formalist and Pop art and the main forum for American art criticism in those days. He had previously wanted to be a painter, and after eight years serving in the British Air Force during World War II, he spent a decade devoting himself to abstract painting and teaching classes in London. There were two exhibitions, one dedicated to abstract expressionism and the other to the Hard Edge movement, which made him see that his future lay where art found new meaning. Thus he left Europe behind to embark on a new path first in San Francisco and then in New York. “As a man deeply committed to his century, he knew several lives in one”, highlights Jean-Françoise Chevrier, curator of the exhibition together with Élia Pijollet. “His artistic activity is part of an existence made of radical breaks and deep continuities.”
“In the eighties, there was a clear distinction between the photographer and the artist who makes use of photography,” explains Chevrier. “Thus, when Coplans begins to use the photographic medium, he does so as an artist, although his work will be dedicated solely to the photographic medium. He takes up his facet as an artist and instead of doing it through painting, he does it through photographs. Simple black and white snapshots that you will not manipulate through painterly effects. Pure photography produced by an artist ”. Something that is also applicable to his written work: “He had no training as an art historian. His texts are very serious and rigorous, but he did not write like an academic but like an artist ”, clarifies the curator.
His photographs were taken with the help of an assistant. He used a large format camera with a Polaroid film that offers both the positive and the negative. While the artist searched for the right pose, he himself was able to observe his body through a video camera and a monitor placed in a strategic place that allowed him to carry out a follow-up of the entire process and correct the posture. Thus, once the body area to shoot was selected, it was his assistant who did it.
He deliberately avoided any pose or gesture that might communicate a family message. He photographed parts of his body. From the beginning he decided to do without his face. “Something that is opposed to the most accepted idea of what a self-portrait should be,” highlights Chevrier. “In this case it is not a psychological definition of the person, but rather encompasses a more universal concept. A more general sense of what a body is. A body that can be multiple, metamorphose, can be many things and take many forms, hence the title of the exhibition ”. Coplans offers us a portrait of universal characteristics through the configuration of a single depersonalized body.
The fragmentation gives these images a monumental and sculptural character that refers us to the Belvedere Torso. In the close-up of two tiptoe feet we think we see the grandeur of an Egyptian temple, but with the ugly aesthetics of Philip Guston (a painter to whom Coplans dedicated his last piece as a critic). “The connection between photography and sculpture comes from the fascination he felt for Brancusi”, highlights Pijollet. “Brancusi used photography to keep track of his work. In 1979, Coplans organized the first exhibition of the sculptor in the United States where part of these images were exhibited. Other photographs recall the pepper of the formalist Edward Weston or the work of the surrealist André Boiffard. In his day, Coplans commented that his work made reference to the ‘politics of the body’, in a clear allusion to two taboos established in American society: the presentation of the male nude and old age. It subverted the historical representation of the human body in photography. Thus, today, in a time characterized by an excessive cult of youth, where the egotrips In the different social networks, his work continues as an antidote.
“When setting up the exhibition, we have put a lot of emphasis on achieving a space in which the visitor finds his own place in front of the work,” Chevrier emphasizes. “In Coplans’ work there is the concept of mobility. However, the effect of his photographs is usually so strong that they trap the viewer. It is precisely this feeling of being trapped that we have wanted to avoid. We wanted to insist on clarity, mobility and vitality. The artist’s sense of humor permeates all his work, along with the grotesque, parody and also death. But I think his work is about life. It is not about aging, but about being in connection with life and being strong beyond 60 ″.
John Coplans. The life of forms. Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation. Paris. Until January 26.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.