Bob Dylan’s drawings: Surreal life or seriously baffling?
Try as you might to decipher his art in ‘Mondo Scripto’, you’ll battle to find out what makes the enigma tick
Say what you like about the world’s greatest songwriter – the only popular musician awarded the Nobel Prize in literature – Bob Dylan has proved a genius at confounding the expectations of his admirers.
Dylan, the protest singer, never conformed to the hopes of the liberal Left. He outraged the folkies by “going electric” in 1965, and he confused everybody by embracing evangelical Christianity in 1978. And this instinct for doing the unexpected is nowhere more apparent than in his art. The first exhibition of his work was held in Germany in 2007, and he has since held widely-attended shows around the world, with a distinctive and often very elliptical visual style that combines his love of mythic Americana with the raw feel of German Expressionism.
Mondo Scripto, Dylan’s latest project – both an exhibition and a book – is a series of drawings inspired by 60 of his songs, each accompanied by hand-written lyrics. The exhibition opened at London’s Halcyon Gallery last week.
If it sounds straightforward, it is far from being a friendly gesture to the fans. Just as millions have turned up to his tours to find their favourite songs rendered unrecognisable, lyrics spat out in unfamiliar patterns and time signatures randomly changed, so Dylan’s paintings and drawings often leave you scratching your head at their apparent opacity. He’s trying to say something, you feel – if I could just work out what it was.
Opening Mondo Scripto, I turned to one of Dylan’s greatest songs, Like a Rolling Stone, which changed the rules of songwriting with its venomously unspooling verses addressed to a spoilt rich girl on her uppers.
And what do I find? A rather ordinary drawing of a uniformed 19th-century grandee. At first, I’m not so much disappointed as utterly flummoxed. Could this be the “diplomat” with whom the subject of the song used to ride on her “chrome horse”, or is that actually Napoleon? Of course, the “Napoleon in rags” of the song. But isn’t that supposed to be a metaphor?
Flicking on through the book, you find more “interpretations” of songs that are, at first sight, crushingly literal. Lay, Lady, Lay is represented by a very straight drawing of the big brass bed on which Dylan urges his lover to lie with him, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door by, yes, a picture of a man knocking on a door.
“These images,” Dylan says, “come straight from the songs. They fit the songs.” They conform to his idea of a good drawing, which is simply “the right lines in the right places”. Occupying the middle ground is Dylan’s visualisation of The Times They Are A-Changin’. Here, we see a Trump-like figure standing at a window in what looks like the Oval Office, surveying a rioting mob outside.
Elsewhere, the meanings appear obscure to the point of obtuseness. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall is represented by a besuited man poking out a bleeding tongue, presumably referring to the “ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken”. Such images seem to be going out of their way to avoid illuminating the songs on a grander level.
Yet if your first thought is that the 77-year-old Dylan has lost the plot, or is simply taking the mickey, the more you keep looking, the more it all starts to make sense. There’s a consistency in the flat drawing style and their literalness that becomes quite surreal. René Magritte famously painted a pipe with the legend “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – this isn’t a pipe. For Hurricane, about an African-American boxer wrongly convicted of murder, Dylan provides a handgun. Yes, it’s just a gun, but it’s also a representation of a gun inside Bob Dylan’s head, which isn’t quite the same thing.
The lyrics, meanwhile, which have been inscribed on the headed paper of the iron foundry in Dayton, Ohio, where Dylan has his sculptures made – with Dylan frequently “updating” them as he goes along – aren’t supposed to be read for pleasure. The knotty awkwardness of the handwriting is all part of the effect. What appears at first to be just a rather clunky set of illustrations is almost a piece of conceptual art.
Dylan, who dropped out of college at the age of 19 to play music full-time, had an instinct right from the beginning that the role of the modern artist was as much about playing with his or her identity as it was with manipulating words or tunes or images. This book is part of that ongoing process.
In a short accompanying interview, he describes the song as “a form of storytelling that changes from minute to minute, and adapts itself to different circumstances”. If a painting, he argues, is too “fixed and permanent” to represent this transitory medium, a drawing, it seems, has the speed and freedom to capture meanings and inferences that may change.
Among the influences on these images, Dylan cites Dürer, Reginald Marsh, an early 20th-century artist, and Rembrandt, “especially his drawings of St Albans Cathedral”: a rather basic drawing of the building is in the Royal Collection, though it doesn’t betray any immediate relevance to Dylan’s images.
An exhibition is to be held in Shanghai next year, with immersive installations referring to key moments in his career. If the precise form is “still in development”, the one thing you can be sure about is that it won’t be quite what you’re expecting.
It’s that enigmatic quality, that sense that we’ll never quite work out what makes him tick, that will keep us endlessly going back to Dylan, whether to his words, his tunes or his art.
- © The Daily Telegraph