Perhaps you believe I have begun this blog post with a misspelling? The truth is I carefully checked the spelling before I posted. After all, it's one of my favorite words in the English Language, so I wanted to be sure I was spot on. I haven't know this word for very long, maybe only six or seven years. I like it so much that I even remember when I learned it. I was with a dear colleague, who has now since passed on. We were discussing travel plans for our students and he said to make our plan work we would need "syzygy." The temptation proved too great and I immediately followed with a "Blessed you!" And we both had a laugh. Never wanting to miss the opportunity to learn a new word, I asked him what it meant and of course how it was spelled. He smiled broadly and announced that it simply was his single, most favorite word in the English Language.
noun, the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies (such as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) in a gravitational system.
Not only does it have an intriguing definition, it has a most curious spelling. No doubt it has been used to confound brilliantly competitive middle schoolers with dreams of being a Spelling Bee Champion. A word which would separate the merely solid grammarian from the true lover of words. Its etymological history, according to the on line Merriam Webster, can be traced to the Greek syzygos ("yoked together"), a combination of syn- ("with, together with") and zygon ("yoke"). My colleague, who spoke numerous languages with the greatest of ease, said he found that some words are just so interesting and so much fun to say that it is important to find opportunities to say them so they remain in use and others learned about them. So, My Dear Blog Readers, I give you Syzygy.
The coming together of three things has been much on my mind in recent days as I have been reading a little book which I had the good fortune to stumble upon in a used book store, ah serendipity...another wonderful word, but I'll save that diversion for another post. The book was The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry, and Calligraphy by Michael Sullivan. I have long had a passion for all three. The author carefully presents a clear overview of the development of the intimate connection between these three art forms. Beginning early in the eight century, when a poet referred to painting as poetry without words and poems as painting without forms the author also discusses the development of the aesthetic principles governing the elements of art and principles of design in Chinese painting with rare simplicity for the Western untrained eye. Although the discussion of which came first: the poem or the image is somewhat of a chicken or egg question, the idea of space (note not referred to as void, for it is an active part of the composition) being that element from which forms emerge and the medium in which the written poem and the image are related and are equally part of the whole, as a goldfish in the water of its bowl.
The idea of collaborative works of art created by highly trained masters of each form within a single work seems almost antithetical our contemporary image of the artist in their creative occupation. In the 21st century, we have come to look upon the artist as highly individualistic, expressing their unique perspective through their work. Use of creative voice, medium, technique, elements or principles are no longer guided by aesthetic "rules." We no longer distinguish between trained and naive artists in defining mastery. We do not even have the expectation in necessarily understanding the work of the artist upon first encountering it. And we often rely heavily on text provided by the artist or informed guides so as to glean some insight. I will leave it to others in a different forum to debate the merits and limitations of artists and aesthetics within this current framework. Like most people, I have my own ideas of aesthetics and artistic standards that can make for interesting conversation if the company, food, wine, and setting are engaging for such an evening of high culture and conversation. However, one thing I have always found profoundly interesting is that even when I do not fully understand the aesthetic "rules" governing the last thousand years of Chinese poetry paintings, the beauty and excellence of a masterpiece bridges all gaps of time, and culture. It seems to me that somehow this truly is at least one defining characteristic of a great work of art: its ability to transcend time, geography, and culture and move hearts and minds in a far away place and not yet born.
It was with all this fresh in my mind, as well as my own recent endeavors in the summer printmaking studio, that I had the good fortune to visit the current exhibit The Life of Animals in Japanese Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Covering 17 centuries of Japanese art and a wide range of media it was a beautifully curated exhibit that made artistic connections both cultural and across time by tracing a single universal and very human theme, the wonder of animal life. To learn more about the exhibit your can click on the button below:
For me, the highlights of the exhibit centered around woodblock prints, and silk paintings. The masterful balance of line and space create a sense of vitality, and yet seemingly contrasting composure, at times serenity, to even the most fearsome subjects as in the dragons and bulls of the Chinese Zodiac. Also impressive was the amazing variety scale of the works from the life size tigers inhabiting multi paneled silk screens to the tiny butterflies who take off in flight as the scroll they are painted on rolls out before the viewer. Being able to appreciate these works in a new way through my own better understanding of technique, aesthetic principles, and history, by my chance encounter with the little book The Three Perfections was indeed for me syzygy. Below are a few of my favorite works from the exhibit. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.