William Copley: painter of ironic prostitutes?

Currently, there is an exhibition of work of the late American artist, William Copley (1919-1996) at the Max Ernst Museum in Brühl (between Bonn and Cologne).  I had not come across his work before and I enjoyed the exhibition in many ways but it has also left a feeling of dis-ease.  There are no photographs from the exhibition – not allowed! However, I have included some images of his work at the end of this post, courtesy of Bridgeman Education.

Initial impressions of the work exhibited:

  • bawdy and often amusing.
  • striking use of saturated colour
  • wide range of mark-making, often achieved with textural black paint.
  • One genre / style?
  • Copley’s work never quite tips over into misogyny (some might disagree) but it becomes a little tiring by the end.  He features caricatured women who are almost always depicted as prostitutes (he uses “whore”, a word I detest because it is easy to “throw out” than prostitute). If this isn’t obvious in the painting itself, its title serves to clarify the viewer’s doubts.  He seems to have had a one-dimensional view of women.  That said, his paintings do not appear unkind – the women emerge as personalities albeit with a limited life view.  However, when an artist so often caricatures their subject, it is difficult to see how the subject could have been taken seriously.

    The exhibition flyer states: “Der Teilnehmer an surrealistischen Ausstellungen und Vorläufer der amerikanischen Pop Art setzt sich in seinen farbkräftigen Gemälden auf ironische Weise mit den erotischen Ritualen der Geschlechter in all ihren Nuancen auseinander” , which I (loosely) translate as “Participant in surrealistic exhibitions and forerunner of American pop art (Copley), in his strongly-coloured paintings, comes to grips ironically with the erotic rituals of sex in all its nuances “.   My experienced, built-in irony-detector seems to have failed me yesterday…

    In a glass case in the Copley exhibition, there were some exhibition flyers and catalogues, one of which was for an exhibition from the early 1960s in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.  It was subtitled “An Entertainment for Men”. ‘Nuff said.  I wonder how many women attended and what they made of his work?  Would they get away with such a title today? Some interesting post-museum visit discussions must have taken place over coffee and beer…

    Copley’s work is striking and his use of colour visually appealing.  He has a distinctive style, using heavy black outlines, which are sometimes continuous, sometimes broken or overlapping lines. He brings variety into his mark-making through size, shape, juxtapositions and density. In a couple of his works, his marks reminded me of another painter.  Initially, I thought of Van Gogh but on reflection have decided that it is Matisse.

    There is a sense of joy in many of his paintings – he clearly thought that prostitutes had as good a time of it as their clients (perhaps some do) – but also an underlying anger, bordering on violence, in one or two images.  By the end, I felt that I had seen enough.  Not only because of the repeated imagery but also because of a style that had begun to lose its visual appeal through being unrelenting.  Less is definitely more.

    Later, when I visited the Max Ernst collection upstairs, I was struck by the ongoing development and artistic drive of a man who continued to evolve creatively throughout his life.  With William Copley, on the other hand, who knew or had met Ernst, I felt that I was looking at the work of a man who had found a style for which people would pay money  and had chosen to stick with it.  I could not say that there was no stylistic development but it was limited, assuming that this exhibition is representative of his life’s work.  Perhaps I am wrong and these are the paintings that people wish to see and there is other work for which he could not find an audience.  Sometimes it can be an audience that makes it difficult an artist to move on.  Alternatively, perhaps the Museum selected these works and not others for a purpose (however, there was no sub-text in the advertising of the exhibition, which was billed only as “Copley”, suggesting that a representative cross-section of his life’s work is on show).

    Someone whose work could be compared and contrasted with that of William Copley is the late British artist, Beryl Cook. Cook’s work also represented bawdy women. For me, the difference is that Beryl Cook’s approach is more affectionate and never violent. She managed to convey women’s sexuality without suggesting that this is how women are defined; also that women can define themselves. Her characters often convey strength of personality. A key point for me is that all of Beryl Cook’s female figures have faces – not all of Copley’s do. Cook’s women also tend to keep their clothes on, even though these may provide minimal coverage. Incidentally, when Beryl Cook died in 2008, the Daily Telegraph’s obituary (3) stated that she had been known in her lifetime as “the woman who paints fat ladies” (they were quoting, too). Would her professional reputation have been different had she been a man? I’m prepared to bet that Copley has never been dismissively referred to (professionally) as “the man who painted prostitutes” (ironic or otherwise). To my eye, her work equals his in skill and surpasses it in integrity and entertainment value, even though as far as I am aware, her “fat ladies” were the extent and “limit” of her oeuvre. Tellingly, a search for “Beryl Cook” in Bridgeman’s database brought up no images.

    Here are some images of Copley’s work.  I have included all five that Bridgeman currently have in their database. I have uploaded them in the order in which I found them.  I am fairly sure that the last three, at least, were not in the exhibition, but would not swear to it.  Looking at these now, which I had not searched for prior to writing the post, I can see that Copley did sometimes produce work that does not fit the descriptions above, in particular, the last one, Loveland.

    Upstairs (Tendresse) (1969, liquitex on canvas)


    Women Taken in Adultery (1966, oil on canvas).  This image as shown in 1995 (it says on the Bridgeman entry – was it altered?)


    Portrait of Marcel (1951, oil on canvas)


    L’Amour of Venice (1961, oil on canvas)


    Loveland (1962, oil and collage on canvas)





    1 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/125930/collotype Encyclopaedia Britannica – entry for collotype. Accessed 17.10.12

    2 http://notesonphotographs.org/index.php?title=Collotype George Eastman House: Note on Photographs. Collotype. Accessed 17.10.12

    3 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/2043397/Beryl-Cook.html Daily Telegraph Obituaries: Beryl Cook 28.05.2008 Accessed 17.10.12

    All images courtesy of http://www.bridgemaneducation.com


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