The Questionable Authenticity of Bob Dylan's Paintings

bob dylan The Questionable Authenticity of Bob Dylan's PaintingsThe New York Times has called our attention to the dubious authenticity of some of Bob Dylan’s paintings in The Asia Series. As we noted in our review of the show, the press release calls the show “a visual journal of his travels” and comprises “firsthand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape.” Certain fans and so-called “Dylanologists” are now claiming that these “firsthand depictions” have a remarkable resemblance to certain photographs that, in the Times’ words, “are widely available and were not taken by Mr. Dylan.”

Having examined the show closely, these similarities are quite undeniable. Have a look here at Léon Busy’s photograph Vietnam (1915). Now look at Mr. Dylan’s own Opium. Everything, right down to the colors, the expression on the subject’s face, even many of the objects in the room, appears to be a dead ringer. There are other examples the Times points out, such as Mr. Dylan’s painting Trade and an iconic Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph taken in Beijing in 1948.

In our review of the exhibition, we had mentioned the possible inauthenticity of some of these images, particularly regarding his supposed presence in an opium den:

Presumably, Mr. Dylan was in this opium den, gazing at this young woman, approaching her but never arriving for the sake of his art. Whether or not that is true does not matter. For years, people believed Mr. Dylan grew up in a traveling circus and hoboed his way across the country in freight train boxcars because he lied to a publicist at Columbia Records back in the ’60s.

Dylan has lifted from his forebears in his music since the beginning. The Times notes the resemblance of certain lyrics on the 2006 album Modern Times to the poems of Henry Timrod, but borrowing and reappropriating was always part of his process. The lyrics, for instance, of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” are clearly derived from the Scottish border ballad, “Lord Randall.” Should we expect something different from his paintings? Is this influence, or mere stealing?

A press representative from Gagosian told the Times: “While the composition of some of Bob Dylan’s paintings are based on a variety of sources, including archival, historic images, the paintings’ vibrancy and freshness come from the colors and textures found in everyday scenes he observed during his travels.”


  1. Reader says:

    why no link?

    1. Sora says:

      Dylan is a copycat of sorts, but who isn’t? The Lord is the only original artist the world will ever know, so get over it and let Bob be Bob.  

  2. Rufus says:

    Those paintings cited–in their composition and direct subject matter–are much more literally imitative of their “antecedents” than are Dylan’s songs, influenced as they are by the body and tradition of folk music. In fact, they’re more like studies, done by artists, of work they admire by other artists.

  3. Diana Wolf says:

    OMG- Everything the man does is subject to such insane scrutiny- and criticism tinged a bit with envy in many cases. Please, you people who criticize with your pens study the history of painting- from the old masters to the present day this has been a common practice, if not advertised, in the art world. From one old master copying another, to Frances Bacon appropriating  Valasquez (and Picasso as well) to Picasso’s  Accordionist and Braque’s The Portugese  (and no one knowing who copied who) to Lichtenstein’s comic book paintings- direct copies of composition.
    Not to mention Van Gogh’s many copies of Millet paintings! And then there is camera Obscura and Camera Lucida “copying” and Projectors on the wall- used by many artists considered “important.”

    It also states in the catalog, quoting Dylan that he uses photographs, paintings, things he sees. Why wasn’t that mentioned in this column? You did manage to quote  “…the paintings’ vibrancy and freshness come from the colors and textures found in everyday scenes he observed during his travels.” but apparently critics and controversy proponents don’t seem to understand what that actually says/means.

    I suppose if Picasso or Lichtenstein or Bacon or Vermeer or any of the others were painting in todays world of instant communication, cynicism and schadenfreude they would be accused of plagiarism and thievery too? Possibly, but since it doesn’t seem to be a big deal now, in this pop culture of always looking for the worst coupled with the salivating love of scandal and ugliness I would guess that they would still be revered. Some people are saying that if Dylan’s name wasn’t on the paintings he wouldn’t have a show. (I don’t know about that, there are many artists and shows in many galleries that are—um— not so good, to be kind.) Rather, it seems that if Dylan’s name wasn’t on the paintings there would be no controversy and salivating at the possibility of bringing a giant down.

    As for the lyrics “controversy” Again, study a little for crying out loud. Google Literary Allusion. 

    1. Richard Huntington says:

      You miss the point. The use of sources is not the problem. It’s what you, the artist, do with  the source that matters. In reproduction–which isn’t a good guide, I admit– it looks to me like Dylan does nothing transformative with the source photograph. He simply copies it, blankly progressing through the composition with his weak hand  in the mistaken belief that dumb  fidelity to the original will result in something fresh. The difference between Dylan and Picasso, Bacon, Lichtenstein and the rest should be obvious: they interpret, he doesn’t.  Yes, nowadays purposeful non-interpretation can be seen as as a brand of negative genius. But I doubt that Dylan works on that level of sophistication.  And anyway, why not simply write in the title, “After Leon Busy” and have it over with?

  4. Mb343527 says:

    He has always called himself a theif in his early songs.  I know a barber in the city where I live. He grew up in Hibbing the same time Bob did, only Bob was a few years older.  He told me that his cousin used to run around with him.  He also said that there was someone in the town of Hibbing with the name Bob Dillion.  Bob must have liked it so he changed the spelling and took it for his own.

  5. Kiwipoet says:

    There’s more at stake here then Dylan’s mimicry. It’s the modernist image of the lone genius (usually male) who wrestles with his muse to produce ‘original’ Art with capital A. the most interesting aspect of  Dylan’s art (music and painting) is its intertexuality, wrong ascribed as ‘plagiarism’, it’s insistence on the constructed nature of images: ie out of available materials. What else is the Blues? Dylan nows and shows what artists have always known: good poets borrow; great poets steal.