Face Value: portraits of a dogged America

Bob Dylan revisits past muses in his exhibition of pastel portraits.

A new collection of 12 pastel portraits crafted by Bob Dylan is currently being exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in a collection called Face Value.

Each painting shows a face, drawn in part from memory and in part from Dylan’s never-ending well of imagination. Observing these characters, one is instantly reminded of the verse on ‘Desolation Row’ where Dylan croons: ‘All these people that you mention/ Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame/ I had to rearrange their faces/ And give them all another name.’

Each painting has a title, while the individual’s name is also printed underneath. Both prove equally evocative and elusive. Despite the ambiguity of who the characters may or may not be, or who they may represent, many of these portraits contain huge personalities.

‘Nina Felix’ is hauntingly dark, with an aggressive edge created by Dylan’s strong, bold pastel lines. The harshness and slightly violent edge to the strokes makes it an almost uneasy portrait to observe. Other individuals, such as ‘Red Flanagan’ and ‘Ray Bridges’, have weather-beaten faces that seem to tell tales of woe. These two, alongside the mugshot styled ‘Nigel Julian’, with his pencilled moustache, could all be Chicago gangsters from the 1930’s. Moreover, they could also be interpreted as figures from Dylan’s song ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’; the nine-minute masterpiece, where - among other story plots - Dylan sings about an old Western-style gang of bank robbers: ‘The boys finally made it through the wall and cleaned out the bank safe… but they couldn’t go no further without the Jack of Hearts.’

Many of these portraits, with their grim worn-out appearances and dark expressions, are reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s work and his abiding portrayal of people who reflect the failure of the American dream. This is especially visible with the washed-up face of ‘Ivan Steinbeck’, whose stunned expression and dirtied white shirt and black tie is reminiscent of a drunken travelling salesman, and suggests Dylan may also have taken influence from the tales of woe penned by another famous Steinbeck.

One of the slightly more bizarre paintings, ‘Ken Garland’, looks rather similar to the actor Anthony Quinn. Quinn’s portrayal of an Eskimo in the 1960 film ‘The Savage’ is often touted as the inspiration for Dylan’s song ‘Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)’, recorded in 1967 with The Band. It thus appears here, that, whether intended or not, Dylan has revisited a previous source of inspiration to create the character of Garland.

However, ‘Skip Sharpe’ is undoubtedly the standout portrait. A sense of depression is emphasised through Dylan’s perfectly minimalist use of colour in the background, the hopeful shade of blue in the top corner of the portrait beautifully contrasting with the unhappiness so plainly visible on his face. His brakeman hat suggests a freight-train riding blues singer, and indeed his name is evocative of a notable blues folk singer from the 1930s, Skip James. One can easily imagine a figure like Sharpe performing in front of a young Dylan in the early 1960s in Greenwich Village.

Essentially, these portraits are drawn with real character and verve. Dylan, in this collection, allows the observer to understand and create their own tales from these faces, that are, just like the artist himself, part of the abiding image of American life, culture and history.

Ben Lazarus is a recent politics graduate at the University of Bristol and a former intern at spiked. He tweets at @BLazarus1.

Bob Dylan: Face Value is at the National Portrait Gallery until 5 January 2014.

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