Let’s cut to the chase – I love Bob Dylan. From listening to the ancient cassette of Blonde on Blonde on long car journeys as a nipper to being a 21 year old framing his records on my wall, he has played a major part in my life as a lyrical, literary hero. I believe Dylan’s place in history rests amongst Keats and Eliot as one of the greatest 20th century poets, a genius of the written word and musical integrity, champion of the underdog. That aside, Dylan’s legacy is one rooted in more than simply musical and popular culture. What he’s less known for is his artwork created over fifty years, including the cover art for his own albums Self Portrait and Planet Waves. But the big question is: would anyone care about these paintings if someone less notable had painted them?
As a phenomenon the musician/actor turned artist is not unusual, but reception to such figures from the high end art world can be notoriously frosty. Sir Anthony Hopkins, Marilyn Manson, Sylvester Stallone and Brandon Boyd of Incubus are just a few examples of musicians and actors who have exhibited artwork to varying reception, and Dylan is no exception. His latest exhibition Bob Dylan on Canvas is the final chapter in the Drawn Blank series, a retrospective of his sketches and paintings beginning back in 2007. Held at the Halcyon Gallery, on Bruton Street, London, the associated exhibits have showcased paintings dating between 1989 and 1992, attracting thousands of Dylan obsessives desperate to gain a deeper understand of the man behind the music that has shaped so many generations. But is it any good?
Generally, many critics seem to think so. “I happen to think it’s [Dylan’s painting] truly valid. He’s been painting all his life. He’s an artist in every sense of the word,” says Paul Green, president of the Halcyon Gallery. “He travels a tremendous amount, he’s an observer of humanity, and these are his observations. Each of these paintings tells a story.” Professor Maurice Cockrill of the Royal Academy agrees, praising Dylan’s “vigourous brushwork” and the “brilliance and translucency of colour.”
Dylan’s artistic style has been compared to artists like Matisse, Van Gogh and Degas. His bold use of colour and depiction of everyday scenes of hotel rooms, bars and railway tracks echo the social observations of such artists working in Paris at the turn of the century.
Dylan’s maverick life on the road makes for vivid subject matter, sketchily executed via his basic choice of paint; gouache, acrylic and watercolours.
There is a real sense of distortion present within most of his canvases, as Dylan plays with scale and perspective adding a distinctly surreal aspect to his portraits and landscapes. His approach to composition and subject matter is almost child-like. Variations in mood are explicit in his choices of colour; the deep blues of Two Sisters adds a sense of melancholia to the image of Sapphic sexual frisson.
There is a simple beauty about Dylan’s painting, in spite of its relatively elementary appearance. A real lack of pretention lies in his mix of primary colours and lack of depth. This collection not only sheds a new intensely personal light upon Dylan’s life and ability as an artist, but also showcases his tentative steps into yet another creative outlet.
He may be the most prolific singer-songwriter of the past century but Dylan is an embryonic painter, and there’s something charming about watching a man who captures the nuances of everyday life so accurately in word and music take such caution in translating these observations visually.
Bob Dylan On Canvas will be on display at the Halycon Gallery, 24 Bruton Street, London until April 10th.