How many times will Bob Dylan be accused of plagiarism of one kind or another? The latest accusations blowing in the wind involve not Dylan’s style or songs, but rather his beloved hobby—painting. A Flickr account holder calling him or herself Okinawa Soba claims that Dylan based at least six of his paintings in a new exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City on vintage photos that Soba posted in his photostream. Is BOB DYLAN: The Asian Series a huge fraud in which a celebrity tries to pass off unimaginative copies of true artists’ work as his own? Or is it wrong to call these paintings plagiarism? Is Dylan the “plagiarist” just Dylan being Dylan?
The New York Times first reported the alleged connections between Dylan’s paintings and these vintage photos of Asia. Look for yourself in the Times article to see how closely Dylan’s painting Trade resembles Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1948 photograph or how closely Dylan’s Opium copies Léon Busy’s photo Woman Smoking Opium. Dylan certainly isn’t the first artist to use photographs as the basis. As Blake Gopnik noted in his take on the story, even an artist as respected as Henri Matisse would “riff on cheap postcards of North Africa” in some of his finest works. Dylan’s amateurish style might be the real trigger for the controversy, as if he could never have come up with the compositions of those paintings without photographic help (the “eye” of Cartier-Bresson), whereas Matisse, for example, had the “eye” himself.
As an art lover and huge fan of Dylan, I’m not sure where all the controversy is coming from. Dylan’s modus operandi has always been that of the magpie. Young Robert Zimmerman of Duluth, Minnesota, wanted to be an artist, so he adopted the name of poet Dylan Thomas. Next, he assumed the persona of folk singer Woody Guthrie and even travelled across the country to visit the dying folkie, as if hoping to be named his heir. From folk, Dylan copied rockers and bluesmen, covering songs of the famous and the obscure. Even when writing original songs, Dylan walked the fine line between allusion and flat-out theft, resulting in odd episodes such as Dylan’s extensive borrowings from Henry Timrod, “poet laureate” of the Confederacy. Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions of Sin methodically and almost maniacally catalogs Dylan’s lyrics beside Milton, Donne, Wordsworth, and others.
The silver lining of this cloud of controversy might be greater attention to Dylan’s painting, which is lacking in polished technique, but at the very least reflects the unique mind that wrote songs that shaped the 1960s generation. Just like great painters often reveal much about their art when venturing into sculpture, I think that looking at Dylan’s paintings, no matter what their source, can say a lot about his amazing career in music.