Projects in 2020
Inspired by Edouard Manet, and derived from his paintings, a small series of portraits was finished in May. The format, 40 cm x 30 cm, was used uniformly. The faces taken from the original paintings have been re-interpreted and stripped of context and peripheral ‘noise’.
The series which is entitled Merci, Monsieur Manet is on exhibit at the Relais de Mirepoix, a lovely boutique hotel/restaurant in the small town of that name in the Ariège department of France.
Table of Concordance of the Images
Xavier Malbreil – author, art critic and artist – provided a commentary on this project to accompany the small exhibition:
Leslie Stratford – A Passage.
The portraits painted by Leslie Stratford for this exhibition will seem familiar to some. However, these are not people known to the public, as Leslie has done often. On the contrary, these are characters already painted, and not by just anyone, but by Manet.
The question that everyone will ask themselves right away is to ask why go and choose, from such a famous painter, models, while there are all the faces you could want in the street, and that, borrowing faces from such a well-known painter may at worst seem like an act of piracy, at best a somewhat vain hommage.
To understand Leslie Stratford’s approach, two basic axioms must be considered:
1: portrait painting is the central issue of painting; and
2: imitation has always been a highly intellectual exercise in painting.
Of the first axiom, there is little to discuss. Already the Romans … etc … Already the late Egyptians, with the so-called Fayum coffin portraits … etc … and already the Flemish masters etc … But portrait painting has always been stretched between the concern to please the model, often the subject of a commission, and the artist’s concern to succeed in grasping his model in their reality, as flattering as that may seem.
The second axiom is more complicated to define properly. Why is imitation of, or inspiration from, paintings a highly intellectual exercise? First, we must remember that copying from nature, then copying from an artwork is at the heart of learning for an artist, as theorised by Aristotle, with his famous Mimesis. But you have to put yourself in the mind of an artist. Yes, we trained him by telling him that he had to imitate nature, then that he had to imitate classic masterpieces, but it would be nice to see our artist as a craftsman without pretence. Since Vasari, at least, the painter has freed himself from the decorative arts, to join the ranks of the liberal arts. The painter is a creator – even when he imitates! He imitates but does better. He becomes inspired. He interprets. He reveals what is hidden. He stands out, he questions, he informs. He does it differently. He shows respect, but he also sticks out his tongue.
So, let’s go for some references? Overwhelmingly, the most famous of all, and it will be sufficient, is Francis Bacon, who inspired by Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, painted 45 variations.
In this famous example, we have the whole problem that Leslie Stratford has engaged. Velasquez is known for being a painter-psychologist, who sought the truth of his model to transcribe it on the canvas and reveal the true nature of the person. And Francis Bacon interprets this portrait of Pope Innocent X, transforming this severe and reserved man into a man who screams, who shouts his anguish, who abandons all his worldly veneer to reveal his absolute essence.
So, we have first a painter known for his ability to penetrate the human soul, Velasquez, and a second, Francis Bacon, skilled in interpreting the intentions of the first and in presenting them in vivid colour, a little Rock’nRoll even.
Leslie Stratford, hijacks Manet’s faces, those of ‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’, for example, and tears them from the canvas, to isolate them, place them out of context, and offer us an interpretation. But what interpretation? And why Manet, this painter who poses a problem for the history of painting, since we do not know if he is the last Realist, or the first Impressionist? First, he retains the precision of the line, to find and define the essence of the model and, second, he declares his aim to move to the purely pictorial concerns of colour and form themselves.
Why Manet, in fact, this painter who can become problematic if one is a follower of clear definitions, of well-delimited boundaries?
The question should be asked of Leslie Stratford. The answer, if she does not give it, will still be found in the portraits she has torn from Manet’s paintings, as one tears away the memory of a face before it is washed away by time. As one also tears away from a major painter like Manet, the confession of his secret intentions, of his hesitations, of this secret torment which animates the great creators when they find themselves at a crossroads in their art.
Leslie captures these faces, and places them on a plain canvas without decoration, and she sometimes brings them towards Realism, with sometimes a nod to Classicism, and sometimes she pulls them towards the ideals of the Impressionists. With this balancing act, she fixes on the one hand the moment of passage that embodied Manet, and on the other hand she gives the word hesitation its full amplitude. She probes this secret part in herself, this part which only she can know but which is after all widely shared, in an era like ours, which seems to hesitate, drunk, on the edge of the precipice, between deadly agitation and Olympian calm.