Jiro Dreams of Sushi


This rather wonderful documentary was recommended to me nearly four years ago, when I visited Japan. 

With the hustle and bustle of family and working life I’d forgotten it; but thanks to the digital traces we leave everywhere, I re-found it the other day. 

I hardly ever watch TV and never have time to watch a film alone. But I consumed this in four (sushi-sized) chunks on my iPhone over this weekend. 

Jiro has made sushi for more than 70 years: and lives, works and dreams of nothing else.

It is Japan – its culture of craft and specialisation and seeking perfection – in a nutshell; or an eggshell given the 10 year of apprenticeship Jiro expects before you are allowed near the eggs…

West Side Story

What a belting soundtrack! The number one selling US album of the 1960s; one listen and you know why. I’ve just written about ‘America’ on ‘Relevant Complexity’ but there’s any number of toe-tappers here.

Lovely to see my little Miss today tripping the boards among the ‘Jets’, backed by Bernstein’s punchy soundtrack and some great choreography, dance and fight scenes. A performance to remember and a soundtrack well worth rediscovering.

Leonard Bernstein’s ‘America’

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From the first hand clap to the final crescendo, it sets the hairs on the back of your neck tingling…

The hopes, the fears, the inequality and the immigrant’s fight for the right to the American Dream; Leonard Bernstein’s sprawling, madcap ‘America‘ is his home country’s very embodiment.

Having watched my daughter dance her socks off in her own ‘West Side Story’ today, and unable to shake the melody – I had to find the soundtrack.

Having tried half a dozen versions, for me the remastered Original Motion Picture Soundtrack has it best. Wonderful caterwauling and catcalling; and the most rumbustious, towering orchestral accompaniment.

Ballsy, brash and wonderful – just like the country, ‘America’ has it all.

West Side Story Original Soundtrack Recording

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Relevant Complexity

Relevant Complexity Link

Here’s to a brand new year.

And to celebrate I’ve bashed out a new blog, based on what I’ve learned about life, the world and everything since I started Achilles and Aristotle in 2010.

Time flies – or rather it doesn’t; a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. But ‘Relevant Complexity’ was a fairly early discovery, I first wrote about it in January 2012 here.

Like all good things in the writing life, the more you write about it, the more you think about it, the more it changes you and what you do – Aristotle said as much.

I’ll plan to keep both blogs going: this one as a reminder of what I was up to in years to come; the new one to remind me to live for the day and enjoy a life full of ‘Relevant Complexity’.

Obscurantism

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I congratulated a colleague yesterday on some lovely prose. His concise, interesting and informative writing made me happily read about 80 Moments which changed history – learning a lot in the process.

This morning, I read another piece of quasi-Academic writing; but which was much more of a slog. It was saying some important things, but in a rather portentous – even pretentious style. The few key points, could have been made a lot more simply.

Then, by happenstance I moved onto to a super article on ‘Obscurantism’ in the equally super Philosophy Now magazine. The question it poses is: when is being complex and hard to decode legitimate, useful; even necessary – and when is it plain unhelpful.

Here’s some of what Siobhan Lyons has to say:

‘Obscurantism’ can indeed be an effective manoeuvre, provoking greater thought-processes and intellectual investigation.

This couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than in Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with a Curtain (1646). I am less concerned with the religious meanings of this painting than I am about the curtain itself; a seemingly innocuous, pointless part of the work, and yet it provokes the viewer to wonder what lies behind it.

The curtain, blood red and purposefully pulled partly to the side, teases the viewer, offering not even a partial glimpse of what it completely obscures. The Virgin is plainly seen; and there is Joseph, semi-obscured in the background, near the curtain; but whatever is behind the curtain itself is left unanswered.

The painting thus features three forms of creative depiction: the Virgin’s clear visibility, Joseph’s semi-obscured form, and the curtain itself, a symbol of obscurantism, or rather, of the ability of obscurity to be creative, by emphasising the ambiguity that so often confronts us, which may however be the source of great art, and indeed philosophy.

For the greatest philosophies are aware of their own limits – aware of when they cannot answer the questions their philosophers ask. As Wittgenstein stated, language must be beset by certain limits.

So obscurity in language can be seen as not always self-defeating, but, ironically, as sometimes illuminating. Moreover, if language were a purely functional tool for communication, we would cease to have literature as we understand it.

If all curtains in all art were pulled completely aside to expose what lies behind them, then the need for imagination would deteriorate. This also explains why good writers are those who not only have a masterful grasp of language, but who also know how to pull it apart and put it back together in different ways.

Nicely put. Not everything in life, thought or Art can be expressed simply; and some things can’t be expressed at all. The art is in knowing which. But also, I think, in having a try. Only practice makes more perfect.

The Lost Jockey

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This week, I have adopted Magritte’s ‘Lost Jockey‘; I found him a home on my iPhone ‘lock’ screen.

Painted in 1948, the ‘Le jockey perdu‘ has lost his racetrack and is charging through an other-wordly sepia forest.

“Racing nowhere fast”, is what the jockey says to me. And that’s why I put him on my home screen. Sometimes I do things faster that than I should. Sometimes I try to do tomorrow’s work today. Sometimes I do good things, but don’t take the moment to enjoy them.

The jockey – whom I have to swipe with my thumb, to open up the brightly lit iPhone world of action, reaction, email, work, stimulation, art, literature, music, aggro and time commitments – has reminded me several times this week not to ‘swipe’ – just do the thing I’m doing; not start something else.

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A Different Perspective

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This week I discovered Albrecht Altdorfer’s ‘Saint George and the Dragon.’

I’ve been inspired before by Uccello’s version, which heralded the Renaissance and redrew the rules of painting with its extreme perspective as below.

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But Altdorfer’s small panel painted in 1510 was revolutionary in its own right. It was the intermediate ‘evolutionary form’ between portrait and landscape. Within a decade of ‘Saint George!, Altdorfer was painting and printing some of the first “true” landscapes in Northern Europe.

The dense forest dominates a tiny Saint George looking diffidently at the rather uninspiring dragon. His horse doesn’t fancy it much, and the whole scene – robbed of the customary ‘damsel in distress’ of Uccello’s has a ‘more in sadness than in anger’ feel.

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Here’s what Daily Art App has to say:

This tiny panel (22.5cm x 28cm) is filled with the ferocious wildness of the forest, from which the lumpy, froglike dragon seems to emerge, slobbering with primordial slime.

In a little window where the trees open, the light of the outside world burns through. St. George is not in the act of killing the dragon—rather, he seems to be looking down on it with pity. His lance hangs limply at his side.

Altdorfer’s George looks tired, his armor is dingy, and the horse seems to shrink back in disgust at the sight of the formless, murky dragon.

The figures become lost in the ferocious foliage (ferocious like the dragon traditionally should be) which threatens to choke out the figures themselves (who should traditionally be the focus), and they all seem to merge into monochrome.

The knight seems to be musing on something within himself which he knows he must slay in order to leave the dark forest of the unconscious and emerge

Although Uccello’s is one of my favourite paintings (forever associated, in my mind, with the buzz and bustle of London due to its place on wall panels at Charing Cross tube) Altdorfer’s is more my type of Saint George.

A thing to be done but not revelled in. A certain amount of ambiguity, a fearful horse and a lumpen unfortunate dragon – a moment of pause and perhaps uncertainty.

Few true acts of ‘bravery’ in real life are as clear cut as Uccello’s. Most have the ambiguity and uncertainty of Altdorfer’s Saint George – which usually makes them all the braver.

Lights, Camera, Action

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Could it be I’ve crested the hill on Art history? Having scaled the giddy heights of architecture with Gaudí, faced with a shelf of books on Dali, Paul Klee, Gustav Klimt and ‘modernism’, I felt a bit flat at the library today.

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A detailed exploration of Hieronymus Bosch’s variety of earthly delights and hellish torments didn’t light my fire either.

Wandering unrequited from the Art section, in slight desperation, I picked ‘A Brief History of Tea’ (can you have too much tea?). But then I alighted upon ‘Cinema, the Whole Story‘ – hundreds of films, thematically and chronologically ordered, with their plot, best bits and critical reception all summarised.

Hooray! it’s exactly where I started with Art history. Cinematic discovery, development of a dash of discernment and future delights here we come. Lights, camera. action!

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The Farm

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Funny how life throws things together… I got a book from the library on Joan Miró, finally got round to reading it; then he appeared in my DailyArt App – and thus ‘The Farm’ (above) came to symbolise my week.

According to DailyArt:

Miró wrote “The Farm was a résumé of my entire life in the country. I wanted to put everything I loved about the country into that canvas-from a huge tree to a tiny snail.”

Miró spent as many as eight hours a day for nine months working on this painting, for which he then struggled to find a buyer in a Parisian modern art market crazy for Cubism.

Much like Miró, I sometimes think of my working life as being like working a farm. It has its annual rituals, seasons and festivals – planning, budgets, conferences etc.

It also has its fair share of the features of Miró’s farm: cockerels crowing, structures we all talk about but haven’t actually built yet (like the red frame of the non-existent barn) and hard working folk like the washerwoman in the background – who are easily missed, but quietly getting things done.

Miró’s farm, like mine, has lots going on. But the most important thing, is to recognise the blue sky and solid structure to the left. It’s easy to forget; the fundamentals of the farm aren’t bad, especially when you look at the big picture.

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Hypocrite?

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Having panned Boucher’s “Fountain of Love” (below) as rubbish the other week, he has had his revenge. Thanks to DailyArt App, his “Birth and Triumph of Venus” (above) has been preying on my mind…

I have to admit; I like it. Am I a hypocrite? Same style, similar figures, same tilted heads and longing expressions – but for me it’s a winner. Perhaps it’s the light and the lightness, or because it’s all cherubs and gods. But it just goes to show, I shouldn’t write off an artist on one duff effort.

My problem is I can’t really explain why I like the one above – and not the one below. Back to those Art books…

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Rubbish

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I know art is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, I’ve read that pre-1790 pretty much everyone painted and built in their country or culture’s accepted prevailing style. Self-conscious choice of ‘Art’ was a 19th century invention, but still…

This 1748 painting has been bugging me for some weeks – since it appeared on my DailyArt App – and I’ve finally decided that it is rubbish.

Finely wrought, technically correct but simply rubbish. Duff setting, inane message, bad colours and overwrought emotions. I’m no doubt a victim of the modern era. Maybe future generations – as those of the past – will come to venerate it.

But for me Los Angeles (where it lives) is very welcome to it. Give me a Greek statue, medieval tableau, crazy early Renaissance perspective, Leonardo’s cadavers, Durer’s rabbits, Van Gogh’s psychedelic skies, Malevich’s knife cutter or even our local Pinocchio sprayed on a concrete stairwell.

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But Boucher’s ‘Fountain of Love’ has run dry for me.

As Aristotle famously said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” I keep looking at this picture but I can’t see it.