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.