Ballet Inspired: The Interview With The Artist Leo Stopfer

We all know that art inspires art and it is no exception for Leo Stopfer, the contemporary visual artist from Vienna who is most closely associated with the ballet.  A major career milestone for the artist, which made his name known in the ballet world, was the painting of the ballerina duo Ketevan Papava and Marie-Claire d´Lyse in 2011, with prints of their hands and feet in the painting. Then he painted such legendary ballet stars as Ulyana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva, Olga Smirnova, Vladimir Malakhov, Alessandra Ferri and many others. We are delighted to have an interview with Leo Stopfer and ask about his art, the creative process and the legendary dancers he depicts in his paintings.


How did you come to the idea of becoming an artist? Who or what influenced you?

For me there was no idea of “becoming an artist”, I just did drawings everywhere and all the time, as many kids do – I guess. So it was a normal thing for me. Then I had my first exhibition at the age of 18 and a local magazine presented me in a big article as “a new talent”. Starting with that moment I was asked to present my paintings and so I became “an artist”.

If you ask me for influence: I was very impressed of the gouache-paintings my father did in school, there where clear lines and everything was monochrome coloured in a strict way. I was drawing fast and also when I worked with colours, it was more or less a drawing.

Big Influence was Picasso, not only with his art but also with some sentences like “you must be able to destroy your best painting” what means for me, to go on with new tries and to be relaxed to understand: your art is inside you and you always can create a next painting, maybe a better one.

What inspires you most of all when you create your artworks?

To work with the dancers backstage in famous theaters, when they dance on my canvas … and they pose for me, this is lot of creative energy and inspiration.

Photo Credit: Leo Stopfer: «Young Olga Smirnova (Principal of the Bolshoi), backstage ROH London in 2013, after dancing parts of “swan lake” and “jewels” on my canvas, with colour on her feet»

How did you come to the idea of painting ballet dancers?

There was a pretty young lady about 25 years ago and she wanted me to do some photos of her in a ballet studio in Vienna. After this first touch I had little contact to dancers from time to time and in 2005 I started to work with Marietta Kro, a Ballerina from Opera Leipzig. But all this was just to be prepared for a very special moment: Ketevan Papava and Marie-Claire d´Lyse in “bella figura” in Wiener Staatsoper on Jan.9th, 2011 – then I knew: this is what I have to paint, so much beauty, emotion, passion … and some days later they danced this part of the choreography in my atelier….

Photo Credit: Leo Stopfer: «“Bella figura” – Kety Papava and Marie-Claire d´Lyse, with prints of their hands and feet in the painting, 190×90 cm, acrylic on canvas, Vienna 2011»

How does portrait painting differ from other genres of painting, like landscape painting or still life?

Before I fell in love with the ballet I was painting landscapes in an organic-abstract style, including sand and other materials in the skin of the painting. Making a landscape you are free, you can do everything, if some tree is smaller or bigger, no one cares – but try this with painting a nose (smiling).

Painting a portrait, I want to catch the personality of my model, the energy … and for me this is also the praise of the beauty and character of my model, the nose is important (smiling).

Leo Stopfer with Alessandra Ferri and Denys Cherevychko, Opera di Firenze, 2015

What is the most important thing to show in a portrait? Is it hard to show the inner essence of a person?

To show the personality or the “inner essence” of a person for me is very important and it’s not easy. My models are well-known artists, they have a personality on stage and they are sometimes a very different person in private life, to catch both in one painting is the goal.

I have to focus on the person I paint, it is like to be a little bit in love with my model or maybe just obsessed.

Diana Vishneva, 120×60 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2014

Olga Smirnova, 100×50 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2015

What media do you use or do you prefer – oil, watercolour, ink, pencil, pastels or mixed media?

I like to work with acrylic combined with pencil, and sometimes it’s mixed media, using gouache when the ballerinas dance on my canvas to make prints with their feet. This I like very much, sometimes it is big fun – like with Julie Kent, for her it was like playing with her kids – and sometimes its like to save something for eternity, f.e. Olga Smirnova (the new principal of the Bolshoi) danced her Odette on my canvas with colours on her feet backstage ROH Convent Garden the same afternoon she danced “swan lake” on the same stage.

Leo Stopfer with Julie Kent, Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 2013

Leo Stopfer with Olga Smirnova, ROH London, 2013

Could you describe the process of creating a painting? Do you have to do initial research, to learn the biography, to study the character of a person?

To watch performances is the most important, with different cast, so you can see the difference. Every well-known ballerina has something specific she is famous for. Ask anyone in the ballet-world f.e. about Ulyana Lopatkina, I guess a majority will tell you “she is the Dying Swan”. So I watch her on video, read about Anna Pavlova who created this piece of ballet and Fonkine, the choreographer. At the end I meet Ulyana, see the rehearsal and performance and meet her backstage …. And then I can paint her as the “dying swan”. But after some years in the ballet-world I know a lot of dancers for years and so it doesn’t take too much time anymore.

Ulyana Lopatkina as “Dying Swan”, 200×90 cm, acrylic on canvas, Vienna 2015

Photo Credit: Leo Stopfer: «In my atelier in Vienna, painting Ulyana Lopatkina»

Did you have to master human anatomy to draw figures?

Anatomy is very important, every muscle, any details of a finger – the ballerinas know their body in any detail, especially their legs – and they find a lot of differences.

I worked on a painting of a very famous ballerina, I focused on the face, the expression but I did not work on all the details of her legs. When we met to talk about the painting, she mentioned how she likes her face and the passion in the painting, but then she was a little bit in a worry and told me: “but Leo – this is not my leg”.

Do you draw from life models or do you use photographs of ballet dancers you paint?

Both, I meet the dancers, they dance and pose for me and I make a lot of photos. Additionally I do some drawings but everything in ballet is fast, so you need the photos also to find the correct details. Before I finish a painting I mostly meet the ballerina again and then I make the last details with the life model. But unfortunately I can´t manage this for every painting.

Ketevan Papava and Marie-Claire d`Lyse in “bella figura”, 125×135 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2015

Which of the prominent artists of the past or contemporary artists inspire you or influenced your art?

Pablo Picasso, especially his early paintings, Claude Monet, I love his last unfinished paintings with lot of powerful red, I like the colorful organic abstract paintings of Max Weiler, the paintings and especially the drawings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, the expressive work of Anselm Kiefer, the human marble bodies of August Rodin, … maybe you know the photographer Peter Beard and I also like the British artists Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. They inspire me, if they also influence me, I don’t know.

Do you have a favourite portrait which is the most precious for you?

There are some paintings very important for me: the first two paintings of Kety and Marie-Claire in “bella figura”, because with this works I got known in the ballet-world. I was very happy to meet Placido Domingo and make a portrait of him and it is a honor for me to work with legends like Vladimir Malakhov, Julie Kent or Alessandra Ferri. Very special for me is also the work with Diana Vishneva, for many ballet-enthusiasts the best active ballerina in the world, for some Russian she is simply “a goddess”.

Photo Credit: Leo Stopfer: «Berlin 2013, gallery Ei, with Vladimir Malakhov»

Photo Credit: Leo Stopfer: «Paris 2014, Opera de Paris, Palais Garnier, with Diana Vishneva»

Precious for me is the canvas with white, black and red footprints where Olga Smirnova danced the white swan (Odette), Kristina Kretova danced the black one (Odile) and Vadim Muntagirov the prince Siegfried. This is also special in a different way: Olga and Vadim are the laureates of the prestigious “Prix Benois” in 2013. Both of them are very young and they did not dance together before and also did not meet at the ceremony, so I had them together on my canvas before they met in real life.

A very special painting I will finish soon. It started end of 2011, I was a greenhorn in the ballet-world, but Vladimir Malakhov invited me to work backstage in the Schiller-Theatre in Berlin. I had prepared two unfinished acrylic paintings of Vladimir and Polina Semionova dancing in “Caravaggio” by Mauro Bigonzetti. In the afternoon Vladimir was painting with color on his hands “the spirit of Caravaggio” on my paintings and after the performance Polina did the same. This evening they danced “Caravaggio” together for the last time.

 What are your impressions of the exhibition devoted to the 90th anniversary of the legendary Maya Plisetskaya, which took place in Vienna last year?

For me it was unbelievable, that Azari Plisetski – the brother of Maya Plisetskaya – comes with his wife Lubov to Vienna, just to visit my exhibition in “Russian Culture Institute” and the “Moscow Ball” in Wiener Hofburg (the Habsburg emperors castle) where I also presented my art. Painting Maya I focused on the famous “Dying Swan” and “Carmen”. You have to know, Maya was obsessed by everything with “Carmen” and “Bolero” (by choreographer Maurice Bejart), and my paintings of Maya in “Bolero” — I had the impression — Azari really loves.

Photo Credit: Leo Stopfer: «Lioubov Kiwi-Minsker, Leo Stopfer, Azari Plisetski, Evgenia Obraztsova (Bolshoi), Andrej Korobtsov»

Photo Credit: Leo Stopfer: «Lioubov Kiwi-Minsker, Azari Plisetski, paintings of Maya Plisetskaya as “dying swan” and in “Bolero” by Leo Stopfer»

What is the most memorable response that you have received to your artworks so far?

I don’t think I can name one most memorable response, it is always a very special moment, when the dancers see their finished painting the very first time. It is a very intimate moment so I do not want to tell much about it, but often they are very proud, now a moment of their performance is “caught for eternity”.

Photo Credit: Leo Stopfer: «Lucia Lacarra and Marlon Dino, watching the paintings I made of them …… in the studios of Bayerisches Staatsballett München»

Photo Credit: Leo Stopfer: «Lucia Lacarra, Marlon Dino, Leo Stopfer, Igor Zapravdin…… in the studios of Bayerisches Staatsballett München»

What are you currently working at? What are your future plans?

The next exhibition “stars and friends” will be in Vienna on May 11th. For this event I work on paintings of Diana Vishneva, Vladimir Malakhov, Julie Kent, Ulyana Lopatkina, Olga Esina, Denys Cherevychko, Nadja Saidakova, Ludmila Pagliero (Etoile, Paris Opera), I visited Lucia Lacarra in Munich and Vika Kapitonova in Zürich. I hope I will finish paintings of Maria Yakovleva as “Dying Swan” and also performing at the “New Years Concert 2014” dressed by Vivienne Westwood who is also a big fan of the ballet.

I work on portraits of “Stars and Friends of the Opera”, like Elina Garanca, Malin Hatelius, Anna Prohaska, Jonas Kaufmann, Clemens Unterreiner and Placido Domingo. A selection of this portraits I will show in Vienna after summer. A collection of my “swans” will be presented in an exhibition in the Russian Culture Institute Vienna “swans: black and white” in October and I am very happy to present my works in London end of November 2016.

….. and there are a lot of nice ideas for 2017 too (smiling).

We thank Leo Stopfer for the interesting and inspiring interview and for sharing his thoughts with our readers, and wish a lot of success with the coming exhibition in Vienna.