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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007


I returned on Monday from a weekend in France, and have now had the chance to give more than a hasty glance through the beautiful hardback book Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series, edited by Ingrid Mössinger and Kerstin Drechsel and published by Prestel in Germany to document the exhibition of Dylan's paintings and drawings at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz art museum.

The book is absolutely beautiful, and arrived in perfect condition, despatched from Berlin by Kohlibri for the very reasonable price of 49.95 Euros plus post & packing of 13 Euros. That's a bargain for such a vast amount of well-bound book, and one that contains so very many full-colour reproductions of Dylan's paintings on high-quality paper.

It seems to me that this is by far the most interesting new work by Dylan created since "Love and Theft", and that the great majority of the 92 drawings published in Drawn Blank (1994) come bouncing to life in these paintings. Dylan noted back then that they were "sketches for paintings", the gallery in the former East Germany took him up on this, and the result is just terrific.

In the entry on Drawn Blank in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia I wrote that the book "reveals a Dylan still curious about outside life, still observing the real world and its ordinary detail: something his songwriting does not always show. The world observed here is sometimes the almost Van Goghian shaking vernacular chunkiness of chairs, kitchens, cupboards, balconies, feet, old wooden houses and vibrant individuals", though it often showed a view "bleak and featureless, the world glimpsed on tour outside a series of hotel-room windows, devoid of human activity or architectural interest, while inside, a few large-breasted women loll about looking bored."

I also felt that these late-1980s-to-early-90s sketches lacked "most of the fun and vigour of the drawings published decades earlier in the first official song lyrics book, Writings & Drawings of Bob Dylan (1973), which were clearly influenced by the sketches by WOODY GUTHRIE contained in his 1943 autobiography, Bound For Glory, though some of the feel for that old rough-and-tumble perspective" remained.

What shouts at me from the new book - from the paintings - is that the influence of Guthrie is at least as strong as ever it was, that the "Van Gogh shaking" is still more joyous and witty, and that many of the pictures reverberate far more shrewdly and observantly than my dull eyes had noticed before. Even the women seem less bored now.

There's a general pattern here, which shows a sketch followed by several different painted versions of the same scene; sometimes one part of the picture is painted so that an apparently insignificant background object looms forward unexpectedly - the one ubiquitous effect of colour is to delineate more clearly, of course, between any one object and its neighbours - but generally speaking the objects in a scene remain the same. Just now and then, though, Dylan more playfully changes the background entirely - eg. in the four versions of 'Rose On A Hillside', pages 116-7 - or changes the person in the scene completely, several times over - eg. the seated figure in the 'Corner Flat' on pages 102 - 105.

There are sketches I don't recall having seen at all in the earlier book, and some that haven't been worked up into paintings at all, but overall this is the same work wrought anew, with the same interest in rooms and buildings, usually scrutinised singly though not so in the case of 'Bell Tower In Stockholm', pages 184-187, which is placed in its wider context.
Colour brings out too the echoes of Dufy in these works - 'Vista From Balcony', pages 52-53 especially - and elsewhere it's very possible that Dylan is paying knowing homage to other grandees of art, mostly of an impressionist persuasion, as with the splendid 'Woman In Red Lion Pub' (one version of which is shown above).

I was wrong about any falling-away from the vigour of the work in Writings and Drawings. You've only to look at the cluster of tremendous works near the end of the book - some very Guthriesque, some less so - such as 'Train Tracks', 'Horse', 'Horse Fragments' and the marvellous 'Truck' - to see that this is full-on authentic Bob Dylan irrepressibly at work. Bravo!

If you were thinking this was one 2007 Bob Dylan Product you might just forego, I recommend that you do yourself a favour and reconsider.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

His use of colour also brings Chagall to mind, in my opinion. Glad to see you've changed your mind about the original sketches: I always thought the "Drawn Blank" drawings were tremendous, very interesting stuff, but this spin-off really brings them to life. Best wishes

8:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Must say I love the line in the Encyclopedia about how Joni Mitchell deals with the problems of being 'a contemporary woman in the modern world'.

But wouldn't it be even more interesting if she dealt with the problems of being a 'contemporary woman in the ancient world'.

Tautology checker on holidays then?

12:04 am  
Anonymous Brian Clarke said...

Dylan has, in his way, been forthcoming about using photographs in his paintings. In a statement in the exhibition's catalog, the singer says that he paints "mostly from real life. It has to start with that. Real people, real street scenes, behind the curtain scenes, live models, paintings, photographs, staged setups, architecture, grids, graphic design. Whatever it takes to make it work."
I have one of these paintings .. this sort of statement .. makes me worry about the artist's signature .. hand signed .. worried Dylan fan!!

12:02 am  

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