D.C. exhibit showcases artwork inspired by writings of Octavio Paz


Pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs. (Hörður Sveinsson/Hörður Sveinsson)
June 21

What does a red Cy Twombly scribble have in common with a rough-hewn image of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman — or with a thicket of hooks affixed to a wooden board?

All three artworks illuminate the writings of Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990. And all three are on view — with a profusion of other two- and three-dimensional pieces — in the exhibit “Octavio Paz: De la palabra a la mirada,” at the Mexican Cultural Institute through July 31.

The exhibit, curated by Marie José Paz and Miguel Cervantes, showcases lithographs and other works that have illustrated Paz’s verse and prose, often in the context of special-edition books. The artists include the Americans Twombly and Robert Motherwell, Indian painter M.F. Husain, Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, and French aesthetic provocateur Marcel Duchamp (whom Paz, a sometime commentator on art, wrote about in the book “Marcel Duchamp, or the Castle of Purity”).

Among the pieces are several artifact-filled boxes created by Marie José Paz, the poet’s wife. During his lifetime (1914-1998), Octavio Paz wrote short poems to accompany the constructions, which recall the creations of Joseph Cornell; Marie José Paz also devised a couple of boxes in response to her husband’s poems. The montage that bristles with hooks, for instance, goes by the title “The Forest Asks Itself” — a phrase that seems all the more apt, given that the hooks look a lot like question marks. “Our years are a forest of questions” is a line in the accompanying poem.

Not far from the boxes hang Husain’s colored lithographs riffing on Hindu mythology. The pieces were an homage to Paz’s book “The Monkey Grammarian,” which refers to Hanuman.


Saxophonist Christian Winther. (Richard Thompson III/Richard Thompson III)

Paz inspired, and collaborated with, many artists, including major names. “None of the great contemporary artists with eyes really open could be indifferent to his presence,” says Mexican writer and editor Alberto Ruy-Sánchez, who is working on a book about Paz and the art of making books and who will give a lecture about the poet at the Mexican Cultural Institute on June 25.

For one thing, Paz was “the most impressive, deep and original poet and thinker writing in Spanish in the 20th century, and one of the most influential creators in the world,” Ruy-Sánchez observed via e-mail.

Paz’s life had global scope. As a diplomat, he represented Mexico in France, India and other countries. During his time in France, he participated in the Surrealist movement, and over the course of his life, he “assimilated and recreated all the avant-gardes of the first half of the 20th century,” Ruy-Sánchez says.

All in all, Ruy-Sánchez says, Paz wrote more than 1,000 pages of prose or poetry that was either “about art or in dialogue with it” — a fact that demonstrates that “Paz’s interest in art was one of the main passions of his life.”

The exhibit — whose title might be loosely translated in English as “Octavio Paz: From Words to Visions,” Ruy-Sánchez suggests — is scheduled to travel to New York and Chicago later this year.

Nordic Jazz Festival

In Paz’s life, the realms of art and diplomacy intersected. The two worlds will intersect in a different way when the eighth annual Nordic Jazz Festival bathes the Washington area in a midnight-sun glow. From Tuesday to June 29, musicians from Nordic lands will give six concerts, at the Twins Jazz club and the Finnish and Swedish embassies. The lineup of performers includes Christian Winther Soul House and Spacelab (both representing Denmark), the Kari Ikonen Trio (Finland), the Sunna Gunnlaugs Trio (Iceland), the Deciders (Norway), and the Anders Hagberg Quartet (Sweden).

So is there a Nordic jazz sound that differs from, say, a U.S. sound? Pianist Gunnlaugs, who grew up near Reykjavik, but lived in Brooklyn for a stint beginning in the 1990s, was willing to hazard a generalization. “I think American jazz typically tends to be a bit more hard-driving and energetic,” she said, speaking via Skype from her home in Iceland. “And in Nordic jazz — of course not all Nordic jazz — you can find a lot of emphasis on lyricism and melody. It comes from being very connected to the traditional songs in Scandinavia, maybe. There is a sense of elegance, or of something being delicate and pensive, sometimes.”

Danish saxophonist Winther, who has been a jazz enthusiast since discovering his father’s album collection as a boy — “Every day I would come home from school and check out Coltrane and Monk and Armstrong” — has a similar take on the respective strengths of the American and Nordic schools.

“To me, Nordic jazz has something to do with the lyrical quality of the music,” he said, speaking by phone from New Orleans, where he has lived since 1997. He tries to weave such lyricism into his own music, he says.

But, at the same time, he says, “I like a band to be swinging, and that’s kind of at the core of American jazz.”

Octavio Paz: De la palabra a la mirada. Through July 31 at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW. Visit www.instituteofmexicodc.org.

Nordic Jazz 2014, June 24-29 at various locations. Visit http://usa.um.dk/en/nordicjazz2014/.

Wren is a freelance writer.

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