The Curious Case of Bob Dylan’s Paintings

Bob Dylan’s exhibit of paintings at New York’s Gagosian Gallery has sparked controversy, and not the kind you want as an artist. The collection, called The Asia Series, was purported by the gallery to contain “firsthand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape.” As the New York Times’ Arts Beat blog reports, many of Dylan’s original paintings have striking similarities (read: are reproductions) of famous photographs. This was first recognized on Expecting Rain, a Dylan fan message board, and there is a lively discussion there on the importance of the exhibit’s originality, as well as the originality itself.

As you can see here, his painting of two men is nearly identical to this Henri Cartier-Bresson photo taken in 1948. The Times also links to the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia blog, which features a 1950 photograph of three men playing a game, and it looks identical to a painting in Dylan’s Asia Series. Another Dylan work titled “Opium” is remarkably similar to a 1915 Leon Busy photo.

While the gallery announced that these were “firsthand depictions” from Bob Dylan, he doesn’t appear to have claimed this himself. He even acknowledged his source material in an interview with the gallery. “I paint mostly from real life,” he said, “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.”

Still, even Dylan die-hards like Michael Gray, who runs the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia blog, are wary of the exhibit’s freewheeling use of existing photographs. “It may not be plagiarism,” Gray says, “but it’s surely copying rather a lot.”

It’s interesting to consider whether or not someone who wasn’t the voice of a generation would be given so much leeway if they produced a collection that was relied so heavily on previous works. One thing’s almost for certain: If they produced the same paintings as Dylan, they wouldn’t be given an exhibit at a gallery like the Gagosian in the first place.

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