Dylan Paintings Cause a Storm of Criticisms: Is it Fair?

When Bob Dylan the Singer became a Painter and had a show in the famed Gagosian gallery, all hell broke loose. Why? Because his paintings are made from photographs that are not even his own! People started throwing insults like "plagiarism!" or suggesting that he wasn't really painting from "real life" (see the numerous articles below).

The New York Times used a more restrained tone, check here. Still, I'm sure that in many people's mind the damage is done.

Is it fair to Dylan? Is he really a great singer and a lousy painter?

Here's the way I see it and you can judge for yourself.

First consider how close his paintings are to photographs. The one reported by the New York Times that is most striking is this one (even the details in the background are the same):

"Trade" by Bob Dylan. 
Marcus Yam for The New York Times“Trade” by Bob Dylan.
A Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph from 1948. 
Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum PhotosA Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph from 1948.

Before you run away screaming, let me point out that many famous painters have used photography as props for their paintings. 

Perhaps the first and greatest among them was Delacroix, celebrated for his horses. One thing is sure, he was able to catch them in movement better than anyone before him thanks to photographs. With the exception of Michelangelo of course, but that doesn't count: Michelangelo was a flat out genius.  

And Delacroix didn't even take his own photos. Just like Bob Dylan.


Surprised? Actually before photography was invented, painters used the camera oscura - for example, Canaletto and  Vermeer. There is little doubt that both owe to that technique the superb accuracy of their paintings -  the perspective of Venice palaces and canals in Canaletto's case, and the proportion of  Dutch women in their interiors in Vermeer's case. 

Here's a Canaletto, judge for yourself:
View of the Entrance to the Venetian Arsenal, ...View of entrance to Venetian Arsenal Image via Wikipedia

The use of the camera oscura is also particularly evident in some of Vermeer's paintings, like this one (the music lesson) where the perspective of the geometric pavement could not have been achieved without mechanical help:
Vermeer's Music Lesson uses semi-transparent g...Music lesson Image via Wikipedia

 Does this mean that Vermeer and Canaletto are not amazing artists?

I don't think so. Of course we don't have the originals, we can't judge exactly how they "tweaked" what they saw, how they transcended reality. But transcend, they did!

The same process is at work with photographs, and it can be such a radical process that the photograph is one thing and the painting quite another. Just to illustrate my point if I may be allowed to use examples drawn from my own work (don't worry, I'm not going to push my paintings on you - I'm well aware I'm not in the Vermeer/Canaletto class!).

Here's a photo of an olive tree I took in Sicily:

And here's a first painting:

And here's another, one step further into abstraction (both are oil on wood panel):

See how far the painting is from the original?

The same can be said for the photos and paintings of people. One day I roamed the Paris tube taking photos, and used them to make what I called a "counterlight" series of paintings (always oil on wood). For example, one photo of a perplexed looking man:

Resulted in this painting:

Compared to the original photograph, the painting is an exercise in creative freedom! I'm not saying it's good or bad and you don't need to like them. I just wanted to show the leeway an artist has with the reality a photo gives him. You start at a well known point, say point A, and then you the artist, with your sensibilities, you move to any other point in the alphabet! That's what makes Art so fascinating! The endless possibility of twisting reality...I'm not pretending that my work is in any way remarkable, just that it offers one interpretation on reality. I could have gone in all sorts of different directions: acquarelle, line drawing, cubist painting, abstract, anything. Actually I'd love to turn my olive trees into sculptures (but no time for that: I'm busy writing the third book of my Fear of the Past trilogy!)

There is really no difference between working directly from reality or from the image of reality given by a camera. Indeed many artists don't work from either: they use what they remember seeing - that's what Picasso often did, and he gave himself absolute freedom when he deconstructed his memories in the various styles he chose (from cubism to neo-classicism).

Now take a close look at Bob Dylan's painting reproduced here. Forget the similarities with the photograph. Focus on what is different. See how far he diverges from the Cartier-Bresson photo: he has applied to it a subtle palette of earthy colors, that highlight the earthiness of the dealers. What we can't see here (because we are looking at a photograph of a painting) is the texture of the painting: is it rough and scraggly? Shiny and smooth? Texture matters in a painting, it's half the pleasure! To know how Dylan's paintings are like you need to go look at them in the Gagosian gallery...

The fact that Bob Dylan has chosen to work from a given reality (that of Cartier-Bresson and other photographers) doesn't make him, in my humble opinion, less of an artist. He has reworked what he sees with his own emotions and visual sensibilities.

What do you think? Is Bob Dylan an artist or a plagiarist? I believe he's the former....

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