Bob Dylan At The National Portrait Gallery

Curator Sarah Howgate talks us through the music legend's new show at the National Portrait Gallery and admits not everyone is going to like what they see.

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Does Bob Dylan deserve an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery?

This was the question that preoccupied the art world when it discovered the music legend was to be given his first show in a British museum – a prime slot in one of London’s leading art institutions, no less – which finally opens this weekend.

In part, the reaction speaks to our natural distrust of polymathy. If  you were asked to name one, irrefutable, pub-debate-ending living genius in the world of music, Bob Dylan would be top of the list.

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But a great artist, as well? The idea makes many people uncomfortable, not least of all critics who, collectively, have spent much of the past 60 years having to admit Dylan’s talents are on a different level to 99.9% of the rest of the world. The result, ever since his first exhibition in Germany in 2007, has been much gleeful slaughtering of a very sacred cow.

At the same time, Dylan-fanatics – of which there are millions – are notoriously inclined to see greatness in every flick of his pen, filling messages boards with efforts to mine such lyrical pearls as I've got the pork chops, she's got the pie (from 2009’s Thunder On The Mountain) for coded poetic depths. Why would they be any less inclined to see beauty in any flick of his brush? In both reactions, the true merit of the work is lost.

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This problem – the fundamental impossibility of assessing someone as culturally significant as Dylan objectively when he’s starting anew in a fresh medium – is something his chief cheerleader in the art world, former MOMA curator John Elderfield (who brokered the National Portrait Gallery show), acknowledged in 2011 when he wrote:

"Critics were obviously discomforted just by looking at paintings… Critic A: 'Would you be so interested in these paintings if they were not by Bob Dylan?' Critic B: 'Would you be so hard on these paintings if they were not by Bob Dylan?' And so on…”

It’s also a difficulty acknowledged by Sarah Howgate, the woman responsible for bringing Dylan to the NPG after 2 years of negotiations.

Despite convincing the most enigmatic and restless man in music to draw 12 original portraits destined to deliver new audiences to the gallery (specifically: vinyl obsessives and nostalgic Fathers who otherwise have little interest in the 16th century royal portraiture of Nicholas Hilliard), the curator of Bob Dylan: Face Value is braced for criticism.

"We know people will ask: ‘if these works were by someone other than Bob Dylan, would you be showing them here?'", she says.

"But you can’t fully separate the artist from the work like that. You can’t with [Lucian] Freud or [David] Hockney, either. The paintings are part of him and who he is. And it’s not just a hobby, it’s important to him. But of course, it is difficult to be objective about them. The fact they are by Bob Dylan is what makes them interesting.”

The 12 portraits that makes up Face Value are a departure for Dylan, who has previously focused on landscapes  (2010-11’s Brazil and Asia series) and satirical magazine cover pastiches (last year’s Revisionist Art), both of which were critically mauled and commercially over-valued in equal measure.

"They look almost not from this time," is Howgate’s personal interpretation of the new work. "They feel like people from the 1930s depression era. They’re like wanted posters."

It’s an accurate description. Stood in the small rectangle room, the 12 characters staring at you from almost all angles are, to a man, miserable; a row of glum faces rendered in monochromatic swathes. 

The blurb describes them an ‘amalgamation of features Dylan has collected from life, memory and imagination’, or as Howgate puts it, “some of them are real people, we just don’t know which”.

This sounds like a typically art world way of pointing out Dylan’s efforts – drawn in quick bursts between shows on his never ending tour – are a mixed bag, some communicating next to nothing in their broad-stroked blandness, others pregnant with subtle emotion you have to get close to in order to feel; fear and anger in some cases, simple weariness in others.

Stood among this motley crew, a day or so before the crowds begin swooping in from Trafalgar Square, I wonder whether they stand any chance of a fair trial – either by Dylan’s detractors, or his worshippers.

Bob Dylan: Face Value is at the National Portrait Gallery, 24 August - January 2014, entry free. 

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