Bob Dylan. Retrospectrum at MAXXI

Bob Dylan at MAXXI
Bob Dylan, Endless Highway 2, 2015-2016 acrylic on canvas

A unique and versatile artist and a profound observer of the human condition

Over 100 works, exhibited at MAXXI from December 16 to April 30, 2023 reveal a previously unseen dimension of the iconic singer, made up of his drawings, paintings, posters, graphics and sculptures.

Like his music, Bob Dylan‘s visual art captures that which he observes: the turbulence and melancholy of everyday life, the eternal passing of time, the universality of the human condition, the material infrastructure of life, its natural and artificial landscapes, its unpredictable twists and turns, its beauty… Within these themes, the exhibition offers the opportunity to retrace Dylan’s life journeys through time and space, in the United States and around the world, masterfully captured during 50 years of creative activity.

It is organised into eight different sections: Early Works, The Beaten Path, Mondo Scripto, Revisionist, The Drawn Blank, New Orleans, Deep Focus and Ironworks.

Within the Early Works section, we see Dylan taking visual notes, through drawings, on anything that he sees: people, objects, specific interactions. These early works echo the style of comic strips or street portraiture, making Dylan direct and light in his communicative approach; he comes across as intrigued and amused by the social dynamics of which he is a part and by the contours and shapes of the objects that he sees.

A similar style is reiterated in the section Mondo Scripto, yet the light-heartedness that we saw in his Early Works here leaves room to deeper reflections. In this section each graphite drawing is coupled with the lyrics of one of his songs, which, as known to most, excavate into the meanders of the human soul, where the simplicity of everyday life is accompanied by both suffering and awe.  The drawings reflect song titles or snippets of lyrics, giving visual images to what had already in acoustic version come to us as personal stories.

Bob Dylan at MAXXI
Bob Dylan, Red Sunset, 2019

The feeling of being not only in front of, but inside stories and events is the thread of the Deep Focus section. Here Dylan draws on cinematic and photographic techniques, in fact deep focus is the name of a specific method whereby every detail of the image is brought completely into focus. In this section there are large paintings depicting scenes and situations of various kinds, mysterious and intimate, but at the same time quotidian and common. A barber shop, a staircase, a newsstand someone’s room… The specific technique, perfectly mastered by the artist, and the attention to detail completely draws the viewer into these scenes, so much so that whilst observing the bar scene, you feel like you could sit on a stool and order a drink.

Between Mondo Scripto and Deep Focus, you have Dylan’s Ironworks, evoking both his childhood in the mining area of northern Minnesota and the USA’s industrial past. Ironworks comprises a group of iron sculptures, made up of recycled objects and tools, to which the songwriter gives new life, representing especially gates.

‘Gates appeal to me because of the negative space they allow. They can be closed but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways, there is no difference’.

The same recycling attitude emerges in the section Revisionist where Dylan reworks the graphics, words and colour content of the covers of famous magazines, such as Playboy or Rolling Stone. His drive for transforming and re-making things comes, he says, from the very ‘nature of existence. Nothing stays where it is for very long’.

Bob Dylan at MAXXI
Bob Dylan, portrait Credit WilliamClaxton

The remaining sections, The Beaten Path, Drawn Blank and New Orleans, are testimonies of Bob Dylan’s travels and sojourns. Some are in the US and are somewhat reminiscent of Kerouac-style road trips, whereby the backdrop of everyday life is coloured in with sunsets on asphalt, motels, gas stations and 24-hour diners. Others are glimpses of his journeys across the world, including the Spanish Steps  in Rome immortalised in the painting When I Paint My Masterpiece. Finally, the New Orleans section shows the artist’s particular devotion to the city of jazz and blues, which, though the whole world fascinates him, holds a special place in his heart. Here, quotidian situations, the routines and movements of the city’s inhabitants are captured up close, and a feeling of intimacy immediately pervades the viewer.

In addition to Bob Dylan-made works, the exhibition includes video installations, thanks to which one can relive bits of his concerts or of interviews where he expresses his social, political and poetic thoughts.

The exhibition will travel across Europe and Rome is only the first stop, a stop much appreciated by the 82-year-old musician, who claims ‘it is very gratifying to know that my visual works are exhibited at MAXXI in Rome: a very special museum in one of the most beautiful and stimulating cities in the world’. The exhibition will leave MAXXI with a bit of itself before moving on: a wall with the lyrics of the song Subterranean Homesick Blues written on 64 posters, as single words or phrases, by the artist himself, next to a screen showing the video that was shot for the song (which is also the first and most famous music video in history).

Bob Dylan at MAXXI
Bob Dylan, Abandoned Motel, Eureka, 2015-2016, acrylic on canvas

Walking through the exhibition, many artists come to mind: Hemingway, Kerouac, Hockney, Hopper, but also, if you will, some of the most famous French painters such as Matisse and Gaugin. But upon leaving, all you’re left with is Bob Dylan: a gentle soul, a keen observer, sitting in-between the figures of the historian and the anthropologist, but above all an extraordinary artist.

Via Guido Reni, 4A

Opening times
Tue-Fri 11am-7pm | Sat-Sun 10am-7pm
(Closed on Mondays and on December, 25)

MAXXI museum + Bob Dylan exhibition €22 (€20 reduced); only Bob Dylan exhibition 13€ (€11 reduced)

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