Monday, 30 June 2014

Pop Goes the Artist

New Lecture for summer 2014


Something a little different - 20th C American, rather than 19th C British Art. Recently I've had a chance recently to look closely at some fascinating works of Pop Art.  And it all ties in rather neatly with my work on music and the visual arts.  So here's a taste of Pop culture:

Bob Dylan's Pictures:

‘The press never let up’, Dylan wrote in his autobiographical Chronicles: Volume One (2004). ‘Once in a while I would have to rise up and offer myself for an interview so they wouldn’t beat down the door.’ Dylan answers his critics by creating his own headlines.  In his world, Robert Zimmerman can transform himself: as he told his audience in 1964, ‘I have my Bob Dylan mask on.’

Throughout his career, Dylan has been accused of borrowing, cutting and pasting.  His 2001 album Love and Theft acknowledged as much in the title.  Joni Mitchell infamously called him a plagiarist. ‘Everything about Bob is a deception’, she said in 2010. But many others take different view.  He is beloved by cultural historians who write academic essays about intertextuality and his use of the ‘embedded’ quotation.[i]  (These very essays can then be parodied by Dylan and his collaborators, Luc Sante and B. Clavery, in the catalogue for the Revisionist Art exhibition held at the Gagosian Gallery, New York in 2012). Dylan is both a jester and an alchemist, transmuting base-metal into gold.  He has always woven old tunes, or fragments of poetry, or snapshots into his own creations. In Dylan’s lyrics we find echoes of Ovid and T. S. Eliot, Proust and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  In his songs, we hear snatches of Dust-Bowl ballads, Plantation-era spirituals and Irish laments.  We are unfazed by contemporary musicians sampling recorded music. But this sharing of songs was second-nature to Dylan, learning his craft in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village.  In the folk tradition, both in the USA and in Britain, songs are passed around, new verses added, tunes played faster or slower, sung with anger or with yearning.  Each performance revises the original.  So ‘The Girl from the North Country’ (1963) is Dylan’s take on Martin Carthy’s ‘Scarborough Fair’.  Carthy approved the process of transformation. ‘That was … completely legitimate,’ he said, ‘Bob never hid anything. And he made his own song from it. That's what folk music is all about.’[ii] Sometimes it is the tune, sometimes the story, sometimes the chord structure:  Dylan’s art has always been underpinned by appropriation and reworking.

The tales told in traditional songs also resurface in his works of visual art too, his prints and drawings.   Greed, guilt and jealousy. Exile and tragedy. Outlaws and temptresses. The folk stories are spelt out in banner headlines.  These blatant texts also take us back to Dylan’s starting-point, when he wrote ‘finger-pointing’ songs, protesting about politics and fame. The words splashed across faux magazine covers are the grandchildren of the slogans he held up to the camera in the 1965.   

Dylan’s choice of medium – the silkscreen print – is another gesture towards 1965.  This was the year that he came into contact with Andy Warhol.  At the time, Dylan was close to Edie Sedgwick, a young woman who starred in many of the underground movies made at Warhol’s Factory.  That summer, Warhol persuaded Dylan to sit for one of his Screen Tests, a trial by camera.  After enduring his silent, slow-motion portrait, Dylan toured the Factory.  He saw Warhol’s monumental silver screenprint of the Double Elvis (now in MOMA, New York), and he took it home. Later Dylan acknowledged Warhol as ‘the king of pop.’  But, he went on, ‘One art critic in Warhol’s time had said that he’d give you a million dollars if you could find one ounce of hope or love in any of his work’.[iii]  The silkscreen medium strengthens this sense of emotional detachment.  The prints are handmade objects, each differing slightly from the next.  But the expanses of unmodulated flat colour make it hard to see the artist’s hand at work.  And the process of photographic screenprinting (used by both Warhol and Dylan) reinforces the distance between maker and object.  For Warhol, silkscreen was the ideal instrument for challenging consumer society and celebrity culture.  A commercial artist by training, Warhol turned the art of the advertisement back on itself.

It is impossible for Dylan to work with silkscreen without comparisons being made with Warhol’s productions.  However, Dylan’s use of the technique is deliberate and singular.  He plays with the disjunctions between the text, the image and the mechanistic manner in which each work appears to be made.  This is a collage, but we cannot see the joins.  He has sampled brand identities, seamlessly overlaying them with impossible statements.  The medium, despite all its associations with Pop and the Factory, is made to take second place to the collision of words and pictures. 

Dylan never makes it easy for his audience to understand his message.  He told us back in 1965, ‘You have to listen closely’. [iv]  But however hard you listen, it can still be difficult to disentangle his meaning.  The sleeve-notes for Highway 61 Revisited, to take just one example, are impenetrable: ‘the songs on this specific record are not so much songs but exercises in tonal breath control…the subject-matter – tho’ meaningless as it is – has something to do with the beautiful strangers’.  The saloon piano on Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues may be out of tune, his voice ‘a thin, wild mercury sound’.  Yet this album is a masterpiece, with a jagged, apocalyptic climax that sweeps past Ophelia, Cinderella, Einstein and Casanova.  Dylan defies categorisation: no-one sings like him, no-one writes like him.  He throws up smokescreens.  Even in his autobiography, he slides from decade to decade without stopping to explain.  We struggle to keep up with his train of thought. We should not expect his pictures to be straightforward.  That is not his way. 

Dylan has always been a magpie.  As a young singer-songwriter, he gathered and sifted, adding new words to old tunes, changing key, mood or instrument, restless, ears open.  But as he said in 2004, ‘You can’t do something forever.  I did it once and I can do other things now.’[v]  As he moves into the world of painting and print-making, he is still a magpie.  This time, his sources are visual.  Images are unpicked and rewoven.  They have been troubling him a long time.  Back in New York in 1961, he stayed in an apartment full of books and magazines and guns, things that caught his eye: ‘books about Amazon women, Pharaonic Egypt, photobooks of circus acrobats, lovers, graveyards’.[vi]  These are the eclectic images that resurfaced, forty years later, when he wrote his own life-story, or at least one version of the truth.  And they are the same images that haunt his print-making..  

Bob Dylan’s art is not constrained by medium.  Texts, pictures and tunes intersect and reverberate.  As he wrote, ‘Folk songs were the way I explored the universe, they were pictures and the pictures were worth more than anything I could say’.[vii]  Some projects are left as songs without words.  Others are double works of art, with text and image sitting uneasily together.  It is the unease, the unresolved tension, our inability to predict what will happen next, that makes Dylan’s work consistently exhilarating.

 And if you want to find out more, click here:

[i] See for example, Christopher Rollason, ‘Tell-tale signs – Edgar Allan Poe and Bob Dylan: towards a model of intertextuality’, Atlantis, Dec. 2009, p.41

[ii] Martin Carthy interviewed by Matthew Zuckerman in 1995, quoted  by Zuckerman in ‘If there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now: The Folk Roots of Bob Dylan’, posted, 20 Feb 1997

[iii] Chronicles: Volume One, p.174

[iv] Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, p.1

[v] Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, p.122

[vi] Chronicles: Volume One, p.41

[vii] Chronicles: Volume One, p.18

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I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

Please contact me on for more details about booking arrangements.

Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.