“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

– Jack Kerouac

According to French modernist Fernand Leger, “The Beautiful is everywhere; perhaps more in the arrangement of the pots and pans on the white walls of your kitchen than in your 18th century living room or the official museums.” -Fernand Leger

Kitchen Wall, unknown Dutch artist, c. 1900

French cubist painter Fernand Leger (1881-1955) declared that artists are nothing short of heroic, finding a way to conjure meaning from “the purest and most precise relationships, a few colors, a few lines, some white spaces devoid of depths.” Part of the “heroism” he said was the high-wire act between representation and abstraction – to balance on the thin line between realism and imagination without losing the connection with reality.

What drives a person to take to that high-wire? Or for that matter, to forget all good sense and devote themselves to the smearing of color across a cheap piece of cloth? What makes someone thrill over a particular shade of blue or green and lose track of time over hand-drawn shapes and edges like some obsessive monk or punch-drunk angel? I don’t know, but sign me up.

Artists are “epic figures,” said Leger, “dominated by that same desire for complete and absolute freedom and perfection which inspires saints, heroes, and madmen.”

In celebration of painting, painters, and the mad saints and heroes in all of us, here is the rest of Leger’s passage on the qualities of the artist:

Fernand Leger, Mother and Child, 1922

“To be free and yet not to lose touch with reality, that is the drama of that epic figure who is variously called inventor, artist, or poet.”

“Days and nights, dark or brightly lit, seated at some garish  bar; renewed visions of forms and objects bathed in artificial light.”

Edgar Degas, In a Cafe (The Absinthe Drinker), 1875

“Trees cease to be trees, a shadow cuts across the hand placed on the counter, an eye deformed by the light, the changing silhouettes of the passers-by.”

Robert Henri, Cafe at Night, c. 1910

“The life of fragments: a red fingernail, an eye, a mouth.”

Rembrandt, detail from The Night Watch

“The elastic effect produced by complementary colors which transform objects into some other reality.”

Pablo Picasso, The Death of Casagemas, 1901, 1932

“He fills himself with all of this, drinks in the whole of this vital instantaneity which cuts through him in every direction. He is a sponge: transparency, acuteness, new realism.”

From The Writings of Fernand Leger, as republished in Dover Publications’ indispensable Painters on Painting Selected and Edited with an introduction by Eric Protter.

Each artist must stretch their own wire, find their own balance, and walk – or dance – their own “perilous” line. That’s the excitement and the challenge. May you, dear reader, find there your own due measure of Leger’s “complete and absolute freedom.”

Cats in Chinese Art

Before there were cat videos on the Internet there were, of course, cat pictures in art. Cats, tigers, and lions figure especially prominently in Chinese painting; the Art Newspaper has a brief tour of that history here.

Xu Beihong, Cat, ink painting