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John Coplans’ Jewish Body

A surprising find among the late photographer’s few papers reveals a man in search of a synagogue

Joe Fyfe
August 21, 2020
© The John Coplans Trust
‘Back with Arms Above,’ John Coplans, 1984© The John Coplans Trust
© The John Coplans Trust
‘Back with Arms Above,’ John Coplans, 1984© The John Coplans Trust

A “Rosebud moment” is an originary emblem. It is supposed to provide a key insight into the life of someone. In the Orson Welles film Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane, the fictionalized William Randolph Hearst, is first seen mumbling the word “Rosebud” on his last breath. The film is a continual flashback. The final scene is from Kane’s childhood, where a close-up of a child’s sled, brand name “Rosebud” is thrown on an open fire, the fire representing the effects of Kane’s inflammatory newspapers, a summation of Kane’s outsize, destructive existence. Orson Welles understood the power of an image placed carefully within a narrative. In researching the life of John Coplans, a clipping found among his papers had a similar function.

By the time of his death (17 years ago today, in 2003, at 83) Coplans’ series of large, headless photographs of his naked old body had brought him fame and notoriety. He is in the collections of more than 100 museums and is represented by an international roster of galleries. Coplans’ career continues posthumously. Very recently, at the Barbican in London, in an exhibition titled Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Coplans’ 1994 “Self-Portrait (Frieze No. 2, Four Panels),” of his wrinkled self in 12 frames, variating four vertical figures, all posed as caryatids, was placed at the entrance. It garnered the lead in many of the reviews. One writer in the Guardian was taken with the images’ “frank honesty and acceptance … at once sensual, affirming and familiar.” In addition, a retrospective of his photographs is scheduled to open at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris in 2021 and at Le Point du Jour, Cherbourg, in 2022.

Coplans said he saw photography as indebted to sculpture more than to painting: Both created visual languages out of light and dark. The point of view of his photographs is ambiguous. His body is an unknown country, a topography of anonymous trunks and appendages splaying out, scrunching up, revealing crevices and outcroppings, a parched landscape or vast crumbling architecture he was traversing anew. He laid out the material, the evidence, and let people make up their own minds. His pictures had an important social aspect in showing the aging body as heroic: a riposte to a culture that valued youth and perfection, that left the fact of ever-present death and decline unacknowledged.

This Body of Work as he often titled his collections, is an apotheosis, the product of a final 20 years of a 50-year career where Coplans made valuable and lasting contributions to most departments within visual arts culture. He was an important art critic and one of the founders of the seminal magazine Artforum, and later, its editor-in-chief. He was a museum director and curator, including at the Pasadena Museum, where he chose artists Andy Warhol and Donald Judd and others who went on to achieve equal stature, to have their first solo museum exhibitions. He rediscovered and promoted the great American 19th-century landscape photographer Carlton Watkins and the potter George Ohr. That Coplans was a brilliant man was readily conceded. He was a generous teacher and a nurturing mentor, but could be a harsh one. He was also a provocateur: outspoken, impatient with standard procedures and professional cant, who, in the words of his lifelong friend and former student, the artist James Turrell, “often burned his bridges while he was still on them.”

Coplans dropped out of high school and served in World War II under the British, in the King’s African Rifles. He was an officer who led colonial native African troops into battle in Ethiopia and Burma. After the war, he studied art briefly in London and became an avant-garde painter and printmaker before emigrating to California at age 40.

Coplans was a second-generation emigrant from South Africa who was born in London. His grandfather Michael was a tailor who came from the shtetl, in Lithuania, first to London’s East End before moving to Canterbury, where he served as a cantor and as the leader of the small Jewish community in this historically Christian city. His obituary stated: “While proclaiming no profound knowledge of Rabbinics, such as would be necessary for a minister of religion, yet his knowledge of Hebrew and the ancient writings was by no means a superficial one and might well be the envy of the present generation. His knowledge of the history of Synagogue music was almost unique.”

Michael Coplans had 10 sons and daughters, most of whom became doctors or nurses and served in the military, some with great distinction. There was a powerful family incentive to achieve and assimilate, a work ethic combined with a sense of duty realized in service to the commonwealth and its people. John Coplans’ father, Joseph, was a doctor and dentist and a self-styled Renaissance man. He was an inventor, political cartoonist, public speaker, and a portrait sculptor. Coplans’ decision to pursue an art career exclusively and not take up medicine made him the black sheep. But he stayed in continual contact with his extended family, believing that blood would always make itself apparent.

John Coplans’ extant papers are limited. He changed domiciles, cities, coasts, and marriages. He kept his papers from the war—his discharges and enlistment papers—and there are some clippings of newspaper reviews of him when he was a burgeoning painter in London. Among these was a newspaper photograph, the only image in the file not of a personage or an art event, under the heading, “The Passing of Canterbury Synagogue.” The grainy picture was of what looked like an imposing quasi-Brutalist structure, with two torch-shaped columns rising within an indented façade, above them, a scalloped cornice. The story is about the temple being sold to a local school. This is most likely where his grandfather presided before his death in 1926.

The little rock-lined pathways and groupings of flowers should have been a giveaway to its rather diminutive scale, but the image had its power, possessing a monumentality. Coplans had an attachment to monuments. One of his final essays, “Epilogue: To My Son, Joseph,” perhaps modeled on the last testament of Sholom Aleichem, instructs him to place his ashes in “interesting places all around the world.” He names Westminster Abbey, the Taj Mahal, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Sri Lanka, the pyramids, all places he had visited. There was a connection between the synagogue picture and Coplans’ photographs, in formal similarities such as the frontality of the structure, how it dominated the frame, the white background of the sky, and the subtle tonalities of texture.

The process of making his photographs involved his drawing on his past and from his wide knowledge of the history of art. One series was a result of remembering being caned in grade school. Another, of photographs of his reclining body, was from reimagining African soldiers resting comfortably on hard ground. Others imitated artworks. One photograph where Coplans is holding his feet is derived from paintings of the Ascension of Christ. They were all self-portraits, of course, and though his attitude toward their execution was objective, he drew on the subjective for its content. “I’ve done so many different things and had so many different experiences in the art world. By the time I came to photography, I brought to bear an enormous range of experience that hardly any other photographer has had,” he told Art Journal in 1990.

Coplans’ “Back with Arms Above” (1984, 42 x 32 inches), one of his best known pictures, is possibly an unconscious evocation of the Canterbury synagogue. This image, where one can see his fists curled above his hairy back, could be the rear view of Coplans crouched, with arms extended into fists, imitating the two columns of the synagogue. Yet his relationship to his religion was ambivalent at best. His father, whom he adored, was beaten by his father, Michael, if he did not memorize large sections of the Torah. In reaction, Joseph taught John that his Jewishness wasn’t necessary, that he should be free of it. But John often identified himself as a “Jewish Atheist.” He admired his grandfather for continuing tradition and for the family trait of doing what was perceived needed to be done. This same sense of utility characterized John’s uniquely variegated art career. In Michael’s obituary it was noted that, “During the war [WWI] the manner in which he provided for the spiritual and material well-being of the large number of young Jewish soldiers who passed through Canterbury will be long remembered.”

Coplans used an assistant to aid him in recording his poses, but “Back with Arms Above” was taken, interestingly, with the collaboration of his son, Joseph. Coplans always looked for a particular kind of image and would reject it if it was “not that strange or interesting.” He was satisfied with this particular image, saying after it was produced, “that’s great, you can’t quite work it out.” It was the final shot of a long, grueling session and was painful to get in the desired position, he strained to achieve it, then said, “take it.”

“Back with Arms Above” was the clearest example, up to that time, of what Coplans was doing with photography, and the image was widely disseminated. It put him on the map. One understood that he was using his body to conflate time, art, sculpture, and origins. In “Back with Arms Above” one saw that Coplans was attempting to replicate the feeling of being in the presence of some mute, wise, monumentally sculptural presence such as Stonehenge. This was its public message. But its private, Rosebud moment, might be of reconciliation and continuity, even if unconscious, because it provided that he was understanding his own history, where it could be rewritten. The synagogue of that archival scrap is the only one in Britain built in Egyptian Revival, and one of only three or four synagogues of that style in the world. It came from European enthusiasm of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (1798), symbolizing Napoleon, who first emancipated Jews in France, establishing them as equal citizens to other Frenchmen. Architecturally, it was an outlier, like he was. In collecting that image, John Coplans seemed to reconnect some of his fraught lineage, his suspended beliefs, his identity, and his eclectic but altruistic history to a site where his grandfather performed and counseled, and to his own modified continuity with his family’s traditions.

Joe Fyfe is a painter living in New York who often writes on art. He is working on a biography of John Coplans.