By Alan Taylor
Rock stars' paintings: a hobby for overindulged celebrities, or
genuine works of art? As exhibitions by Bob Dylan and Ronnie Wood
open in Scotland, Alan Taylor finds out. While Sean Bell looks at
some other arthouse rockers.
A FEW weeks ago, in the midst of the festive mayhem, I took my life
in my hands and entered Jenners department store in Edinburgh.
Through catacombs thronged with shoppers I scooted, a man on a
mission, ignoring the frantic last-minute offers, until I emerged
from the lift into the kitchenware department. From there I
progressed through luggage and lighting and, suddenly, there it was:
the Jenners art gallery. Compared with the rest of the shop it was
near-as-dammit empty. Two women were peering at a picture of an ample
woman in a yellow frock.
"It's by Bob Dylan," said one of the women, her enunciation an
elocutionist's dream. "Ooooh," said her companion, moving nearer to
get a better look. "Remind me who he is." "He's a singer," said her
chum. "I didn't know he could paint."
Nor, one suspects, did many people. The prints by Dylan in Jenners
were from what he calls The Drawn Blank Series, of which there were
around half a dozen or so for sale at about £2500 each. This week, at
the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, more of his brushwork will be on
show. Having started to paint and draw in the 1960s, Dylan took it up
again in the late 1980s. Fans of his music are acquainted with his
artwork, as it has featured on the covers of the albums Self Portrait
and Planet Waves.
Visual art, Dylan has intimated, allows him to capture the essence of
simple things and to realise what he was seeing while touring
eternally. He seems to flirt with different styles, as he does when
writing songs. At times he appears influenced by Gauguin, at others
by Van Gogh, Munch and Matisse. His palette is as brightly coloured
as an impressionist's and his subjects are rooted in contemporary
American life: tall buildings, ragged cityscapes, people hunched over
bars and trains in the distance, the sound of which, he wrote in his
autobiography, Chronicles, "more or less made me feel at home, like
nothing was missing".
By coincidence, less than half a mile away in The Dome on Edinburgh's
George Street, another rock legend, Ronnie Wood of The Rolling
Stones, is also exhibiting. Unlike Dylan, Wood trained as an artist.
In 1963, when he was 16, he followed his two older brothers and
attended Ealing Art College. But the siren call of rock'n'roll meant
that art had to take a back seat.
That Wood can draw and paint is undoubted. Anything that grabs his
interest is grist to his mill, from a rhinoceros to Grace Jones,
thoroughbred horses to fellow Stones. Here in caricature is Mick
Jagger dressed in military garb, a sword in one hand, a cricket bat
in the other. In contrast, Keith Richards is drawn as a
sandal-wearing, one-eyed pirate, cutlass at the ready, looking like
pure evil. Charlie Watts, meanwhile, looks the ice-cool, laconic
bandleader that he is. Wood himself is portrayed as a vagabond, with
a child on his knee and a Gypsy dancer and caravan in the background.
Though Wood's work has been derided as "feeble and figurative" - such
is the art world's obsession with conceptualism and gimmickry - there
have been signs of late that it is being taken more seriously. The
notoriously contrary critic Brian Sewell has called him "an
accomplished and respectable painter". Pleasing as such a paean
surely is, Wood can always console himself that, whatever critics
say, his work sells, sometimes for six and more figures.
But to what extent that is because of its innate appeal will always
remain clouded by the allure of his celebrity. The same could be said
of Dylan, many of whose fans are happy to pay for one of his prints
simply to own his pencilled signature which confirms their
authenticity. Were such work to be shown pseudonymously, who knows
what its reception might be? What is certain is that there will
always be interest in artwork by famous people, be they Hitler or
Prince Charles, Churchill or Paul McCartney.
Some artists, such as McCartney, return to painting later in life,
having enjoyed it while they were young. McCartney used to draw when
at school, titillating his classmates with depictions of nude women.
Unlike his fellow Beatle, John Lennon, McCartney did not go to art
school, a path well trodden by rock stars from the 1960s onwards.
Lennon attended Liverpool Art College but failed to complete his
degree. Ray Davies of The Kinks is an alumnus of Hornsey School of
Art in London. Bryan Ferry studied fine art at Newcastle University;
his sometime collaborator Brian Eno attended Ipswich and Winchester
Such institutions were often the focal point of the student unrest
that typified the 1960s. At Hornsey, for example, a student movement
for total reform took over control of the college, with the support
of many members of staff. It was not alone. Rebellion was in the air
and with the questioning of authority came a similar irreverence to
creativity. The old norms no longer pertained. Now art colleges were
as attractive to aspiring fashion designers and hairdressers as they
were previously to sculptors and painters.
As the Scottish cultural historian, Arthur Marwick, wrote in his
book, The Sixties, "Art colleges and design schools were critical
agencies in the evolution and expansion of youth culture they were
centres for discussions of existentialism (in however vulgarised a
form), Beat philosophy and the deficiencies of the Establishment'.
One art student of the time recalled later: The fact that we were
technically being trained to design ceramics or books or theatre sets
was irrelevant. You'd go to the canteen and you'd have a painter, a
typographer, a film-maker, a graphic designer, all at the same table."
Such cross-cultural contact was vital. At the most basic level,
people who in previous generations would never have connected now
rubbed shoulders daily. It was a familiarity that bred respect,
curiosity and the desire to participate. Now musicians wanted to
write books as well as read them, while writers aspired to make films
and paint, and artists saw themselves as rock stars.
It is the ethos of the Sergeant Pepper album cover, in which a
creative community saw endless potentiality for collaboration. In
short, people wanted to learn from and expand on the examples of
others. Hence the influence of such diverse artists as Andy Warhol
and William Burroughs, the cult figure of the Beat Generation, whose
distinctive mark on the London art scene in the 1960s was recently
explored in an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Back then,
says James Campbell, author of This Is The Beat Generation, "the pop
scene in London (Beatles, Stones, Bowie) had pretensions to become
more arty. Burroughs-the-well-known-junkie provided a good way in."
Dylan's art college was New York's Greenwich Village, with its myriad
clubs, pubs and coffee houses. In Chronicles, he references a
blizzard of writers, musicians, comedians, film-makers, painters,
statesmen and thinkers, all of whom alloyed to form his philosophy
and fire his imagination. When he was inclined, he could escape the
Village and travel downtown where all the great galleries were, such
as Moma and the Met, where he could gaze in wonder at original
paintings by Velasquez, Goya, Delacroix, Rubens, Braque, Kandinsky and Picasso.
He was impressed by the last-mentioned's marriage at the age of 79 to
a 35-year-old model. "Wow. Picasso wasn't just loafing about on
crowded sidewalks," he wrote. "Life hadn't passed him yet. Picasso
had fractured the art world and cracked it wide open. He was
revolutionary. I wanted to be like that."
But if Picasso showed him the way to live, the artist with whom he
felt most affinity was Red Grooms, one of the leading figures in
American pop art. Grooms, said Dylan, incorporated "every living
thing" into his crazy, comedic, teeming canvases. "I loved the way
Grooms used laughter as a diabolical weapon," added Dylan. And, when
he came to paint and draw, it was from Grooms he took his cue,
"putting an orderliness to the chaos around". Which, when you cut
through the flim-flam, stands as the basis for all art, irrespective
of the form it takes.
More arthouse rockers
"I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by
circumstance," Joni Mitchell has said. That the circumstance in
question was her flourishing as one of the most distinctive voices of
her generation does not change the fact that, like a disquieting
number of singers, the Canadian singer-songwriter started out in art
school. However, as anyone who views the 261 art works on her
website, www.jonimitchell.com, can attest, she defies the conventions
of many rock'n'roll dabblers by actually being rather good, with a
painting style that is both admirably varied and slyly whimsical.
Album art: Ladies Of The Canyon (1970)
The desire to paint has apparently been with Patti Smith for a long
time. "In 1967, I was painting and writing poetry; I had many
different outlets before I made records," she said. The
boundary-pushing singer-poet of the New York punk scene has continued
painting ever since, hosting occasional exhibitions. As one would
imagine, her drawings, paintings and photographs cover similar
subject matter to her music - symbolism, politics, angst and, of
course, herself. A retrospective of her work came to Glasgow's
Mitchell Library in 2006.
Album art: Peace And Noise (promo-version, 1997)
To have co-written what is considered one of the best debut albums of
all time, but then see your band struggle to record a follow-up must
be frustrating; but if art comes out of frustration then John Squire
of The Stone Roses should have deep reserves of inspiration. Perhaps
feeling a little stifled by his time as guitarist in a group never
particularly known for its wild experimentation, Squire's painting -
heavily influenced by abstract artists such as Paul Klee and Jackson
Pollock - was therefore not a surprising career development, despite
his recorded comment that Britpop was full of "Kensington art-w***ers".
Album art: The Stone Roses (1989)
Music, painting, reclusive crackpottery ... some argue there is no
end to Captain Beefheart's talents. With a reputation for dictatorial
freakiness, perhaps it was better Beefheart - aka Don Van Vliet -
found a medium that didn't rely on puny humans he would have to lock
up and shout at. His artwork has enjoyed critical acclaim, to which
he responded: "It helps when people appreciate what you do, but I'm
an artist, so thanks ... but don't touch me."
Album art: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978)
Bob Dylan's The Drawn Blank Series is at the City Art Centre,
Edinburgh, from January 31 to March 15. Ronnie Wood's art is on show
at The Dome, Edinburgh, from January 27 to January 31.