Bob Dylan’s Art
Bringing it all back home
As an extensive collection of Bob Dylan’s paintings comes to Edinburgh Neil Cooper considers the work of the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman
‘My father, who was plain speaking and straight talking had said, “Isn’t an artist a fellow who paints?” when told by one of my teachers that his son had the nature of an artist. It seemed I’d always been chasing after something, anything that moved – a car, a bird, a blowing leaf – anything that might lead me into some more lit place, some unknown land downriver.’
When Bob Dylan wrote this in Chronicles: Volume One in 2004, he could have been referring to a multitude of creative endeavours from a back catalogue that stretches out over almost half a century now. From earnest coffee-house troubadour to electric Judas spokesman of a generation, across umpteen albums, a free-form novel, the film Renaldo and Clara and most recently as host of the Theme Time Radio Hour, Dylan has been forever on the move, endlessly morphing into different versions of himself to keep the devoted who hang on his every utterance guessing.
With the arrival of The Drawn Blank Series, the most extensive collection of Dylan’s paintings to be aired to date, yet another Dylan emerges that’s both oddly familiar and a refreshingly new arrival blowing into town.
‘There’s this major dilemma,’ says City Art Centre curator Ian O’Riordan, ‘over whether people look at the works in the same way as they would if they didn’t know they were by Dylan. But you have to side-step that, because there are elements of Matisse and Picasso here, and they really do pack a punch.’
Based on sketches laid down as Dylan toured between 1989 and 1992 and subsequently published in 1994, The Drawn Blank Series was born out of an approach in 2006 from Ingrid Mossinger, curator of the Kunstsammlungen Museum in Chemnitz, Germany. Dylan had always intended scaling up his drawings into paintings, and Mossinger’s interest gave him the impetus to focus on watercolours and gouache. The result is a scattershot view of life on the road, of hotel rooms, women and objects that come in and out of view of a just-arrived eye.
In style, colouring and configuration they at times resemble Dylan’s painting for the cover of his tellingly named though critically derided 1970 album, Self Portrait. Like Dylan’s songs too, the paintings are in and of the moment, the different versions of each reflecting a variety of moods which restlessly up-end each other depending on which angle they’re coming from. This resembles Dylan’s treatment songs such as ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ from his 1975 Blood On The Tracks album. While the recorded version is itself a free-wheeling and ambiguous litany of love on the run, Dylan has frequently ripped into it live, with totally different sets of lyrics set to a much slower tempo.
‘It’s like he’s walking the city,’ O’Riordan observes, ‘and seeing how wonderful it is from the outside before he gets in among it. You keep looking at them and thinking there’s a song in there somewhere.’
Like the song says: ‘We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view.’
Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series, City Art Centre, Edinburgh, Sat 31 Jan–Sun 15 Mar.