Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bob Dylan: 5 Songs – fine complement to the Drawn Blank catalogue

Dylan the painter was revealed to an unsuspecting world by Chemnitz’s Kunstsammlungen in 2007/2008. Aficionados the world over are indebted to curator Ingrid Mossinger who, seeing the potential in a largely ignored series of pencil sketches published years earlier, encouraged Dylan to develop them into a massive series of colourful, Expressionist watercolours and gouaches.

Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series, the resultant large format hardback catalogue (published in 2007 in two editions – identical content, different covers - by the museum and commercial publisher Prestel), has 170 evocative paintings developed from 85 of the original pencil sketches. Plus four short essays. It’s a must-have on any decent Dylan bookshelf.

Bob Dylan: 5 Songs, the follow-up, is fine complement, another must-have Drawn Blank collectable. It’s in the same hardback large format, but it focuses on Dylan’s words rather than his images.

The book collects the transcripts of five lectures delivered by German writers and academics at the museum during the exhibition. They each cover a Dylan song from a different decade: Visions Of Johanna, Tangled Up In Blue, Blind Willie McTell, Cold Irons Bound and Beyond The Horizon. The book’s 33 images, though delightful, are secondary.

All Dylan books, mostly by American or English writers, have a deep cultural bias: we can’t help being influenced by where we live. So it’s instructive to read writers from Germany: as anyone who has seen Dylan in concert in Germany will confirm, there’s a refreshingly different mindset to Bob following in Europe’s largest country.

All five pieces in Bob Dylan: 5 Songs are stimulating. I quickly became a fan of writer/academic Heinrich Detering. His lecture on Visions Of Johanna is perceptive; it comes as no surprise to learn that his academic work centres on German literary greats like Goethe and Mann. Detering’s an original thinker – for example, he rejects the usual suspects as the subject of his song and proposes, instead, that “Johanna” is, in fact, based on Brecht’s St Joan!

Rainer Vesely’s analysis of Tangled Up In Blue, a coherent, sustained rumination on the theme of betrayal, is also striking. I’m less convinced by Thomas Steinfeld’s hymn of praise to Cold Irons Bound – “the most successful song on the album”. I’ve always heard it as throwaway, lightweight. Steinfeld’s espousal did force me to listen again, very carefully, though my reaction remained the same. Even where you disagree, Steinfeld, like the others, challenges you to think about the songs afresh.

The highlight of the collection is the bonus track – a luminous, lengthy analysis of Theme Time Radio Hour by the aforementioned Heinrich Detering. It’s one of those lovely pieces which has you alternately nodding in agreement, as you find your own reactions duplicated, and then stopping in surprise at another original thought – “why didn’t I think of that?” Detering’s is the most literate dissection of the artfulness and significance of Dylan’s radio series that I’ve seen.

Publishing Bob Dylan: 5 Songs as a bi-lingual edition gives the book global appeal, but it has a downside, of course: half the pages are unnecessary, whether you’re an English or a German speaker.

Ingrid Mossinger’s vision in staging the Drawn Blank exhibition helped to reposition Dylan as a serious multi-faceted artist, not merely the pre-eminent musician of the age. The resulting pair of books she’s edited furnish irrefutable evidence.

Bob Dylan: 5 Songs is the second fine Drawn Blank collectable: if you’re seriously into Dylan, you need both.

Bob Dylan 5 Songs: Lectures accompanying the exhibition Bob Dylan. The Drawn Blank Series at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz. Edited by Ingrid Mossinger and Wolfram Ette with watercolours by Bob Dylan.
Published by Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz/Keber Art, 2009. Large format hardback, 288pp, euro 22.

(Current special deal on museum website: 5 Songs PLUS Drawn Blank catalogue – euro 40; check that you get English ed of catalogue, if that’s what you require; check carriage costs; and, if ordering from outside the eurozone, ensure you’re familiar with currency conversion costs.)

Gerry Smith