Bob Dylan is a Nobel Prize–winning, profoundly quixotic troubadour who is quite rightly seen as one of the world’s greatest-ever songwriters and performers. Less well known is that for decades Dylan has also pursued a burning interest in the visual arts. As far back as 1968, he painted the cover art for The Band’s Music From Big Pink, and there have been several exhibitions of his sculptures and paintings in the years since.
Dylan might be less renowned for his visual renderings than for his words, but his latest exhibition—which opens in London on Tuesday, October 9—happily marries both. “Mondo Scripto” at the Halcyon Gallery is a Dylan-curated selection of 60 of his songs, each of which have had their lyrics handwritten (and sometimes re-written, as in the case of songs like 1975’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” in which instead of having “used a little too much force,” Dylan’s now has the protagonist “let the law take its course”) and have been illustrated by Dylan with a line pencil drawing. Asked about these illustrations in a brief interview text that accompanies the exhibition, a typically reticent Dylan says: “Those images come straight from the songs. They fit the songs.”
For confirmed Dylanologists, poring over the changes he has applied to his lyrics and considering the images he has chosen to draw for each should prove rewarding. A few examples to highlight here include his illustration for “Like a Rolling Stone” of Napoleon in rags, the “big brass bed” of “Lay, Lady, Lay,” and a smoking, just-fired pistol from “Hurricane.” If you dig Dylan, you’ll know what these mean—and if not, what are you waiting for? Get digging!
Of the 20 or so images and lyrics I was fortunate enough to glimpse before tomorrow’s opening, perhaps the most tantalizing was a drawing (one of two options sketched by Dylan) chosen to accompany one of his most famous songs, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” First written and performed by Dylan in 1963, this song both prefigured and soundtracked much of the social change that wracked and renewed the United States during that decade. One of its most telling verses is aimed squarely at the political elite, and seems equally relevant today as it did 55 years ago:
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
For the two images that accompany this song, Dylan has rendered a writing hand busy at work with a fountain pen, and a mise-en-scène that shows a baggily suited figure with curiously combed hair staring out the paneled window of what is clearly the Oval Office. Beyond the window, angry demonstrators battle and rage. In the accompanying interview, Dylan says only that “a song is really a form of storytelling that changes from minute to minute and adapts itself to different circumstances.” So read into that what you will, but if ever there was a song whose original circumstances seem perfectly right for right now, it is “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Bob Dylan’s “Mondo Scripto” will be on view at London’s Halcyon Gallery, 144-146 New Bond Street, London W1S 2PF, from October 9–November 30, 2018.