Bob Dylan looks back

The songwriter’s latest exhibition of paintings has been plagued with accusations of plagiarism, but

When Bob Dylan's first major US exhibition of original artwork opened at the Gagosian Gallery in New York on 20 September, critics were united in their relief that the assembled paintings were, if not groundbreaking, not as awful as the science-based lithographs of the former Monkees front man Micky Dolenz. Or as dull as the Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood's portraits of . . . er, the Rolling Stones. Some rock musicians are true renaissance men, with creditable work across several mediums, but those who fit such a description can probably be counted on one hand (Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, has claim to a finger).

Dylan has long been a graphic artist. In the first (and as yet only) volume of Chronicles, his semi-fictionalised memoirs, he describes how he "picked up the habit" of drawing from the late Suze Rotolo, his girlfriend in the early 1960s: "I would start with whatever was at hand. I sat at the table, took out a pencil and paper and drew the typewriter, a crucifix, a rose, pencils and knives and pins, empty cigarette boxes." This interest would manifest itself sporadically throughout his career, with his visual work adorning the album covers of the Band's Music from Big Pink (1968) and his own early 1970s releases Self Portrait and Planet Waves.

In 2008, the Statens Museum in Copenhagen exhibited a large collection of his paintings called "The Brazil Series", supposedly based on Dylan's personal observations of the country on his travels. The Gagosian's show, "The Asia Series", is a sister project that takes south-east Asia as its subject. (The gallery's somewhat po-faced blurb claims that it is a "visual journal" that "comprises first-hand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape".) Despite its foreign themes, the exhibition represents an artistic homecoming for Dylan, whose compulsive image-making began in the nearby bohemian quarters of Greenwich Village, under the wing of Rotolo.

"The Asia Series", however, has been controversial for Dylan's unapologetic use of appropriated compositions: fans on the forum pages of the Expecting Rain website have identified the source images of several of the paintings, including a photograph of an elderly Chinese man and a friend by Henri Cartier-Bresson, taken in 1948. Perhaps even Johann Hari would blush at the scale of Dylan's direct referencing of other people's work -- from the central figures to the incidental background details, the artist seems to have faithfully reproduced every detail.

Michael Gray, author of the Song and Dance Man series of books on Dylan, was withering in his analysis: "[It] may be a (very self-enriching) game he's playing with his followers but it's not a very imaginative approach to painting," he wrote on his blog. Yet is Dylan's approach to painting so surprising? His work throughout his career -- in song, poetry and film, as well as visual art -- has been characterised by an exhilarating omnivorousness. The restless, mercurial energy of his music is partly derived from how each of his songs contains multitudes of other voices.

Folk music is an adaptive vernacular: it survives by evolving. Much of this process takes the form of one musician borrowing a line or verse from another and adding something new along the way. In the song "Trouble in Mind", Big Bill Broonzy sings: "I won't be blue always/Yes, the sun gonna shine/In my back door someday." In "Big Road Blues", the ever mysterious Tommy Johnson sings: "Lord, sun gon' shine in my backdoor, someday/A wind gon' change all blow my blues away." Such "floating lyrics" belong to no one and pass from one songwriter to another; their expressive power draws from their mutability, the sense that their meaning is at once unfixed and specific, that their significance is simultaneously personal and communal.

Dylan has applied the methodology of the maverick phrase to all of his output, from lifting a Bascom Lamar Lunsford line ("A railroad man, they'll kill you when he can and drink up your blood like wine") for his song "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" ("They say that all the railroad men drink up your blood like wine") to piecing together fragments of Jack London novels and articles from Time magazine to colour his memoirs. His 2001 album Love and Theft was a manifesto in practice that celebrated pastiche as a liberating strategy: the final song, "Sugar Baby", took the melody and parts of the chorus from the 1927 show tune "Lonesome Road" by Gene Austin and Nathaniel Shilkret, for instance, and even the name of the collection was a nod to the historian Eric Lott's excellent book about minstrelsy of the same name.

Is pastiche, this loving theft, something that detracts from the quality of an artwork? Jacques Derrida's notion of iterability posits that a set of signs carries meaning because it is repeated, and that it cannot be saturated by any one context. Dylan's work, be it his painting, his music or writing, enacts this freedom from single interpretation, and that's why, for me, the best of it is endlessly rewarding. By repeating and assembling pieces of our shared cultural heritage, Dylan offers us a reflection not only of these new dark ages, these modern times, but also of the creative journey that has brought us here.

The Gagosian show may well be patchy -- Dylan's craftsmanship as a painter is unremarkable -- but to dismiss him for, in effect, applying the folk method to the canvas is unfair. Besides, has he been disingenuous? In the interview included in the exhibition catalogue, he says: "I paint 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." The implication is that, to Dylan, photographs and paintings are as "real" as people and street scenes. In a hyper-mediated world, the media artifact is surely valid as a source of inspiration.

Hat-tip to Neil Rennie, from whom I borrowed (appropriated? referenced? stole? pastiched?) the Tommy Johnson/floating line example.

Yo Zushi works for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Pointy Records

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era