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Bob Dylan by ph.William Claxton, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

Bob Dylan. Retrospectum : Dylan’s visual artworks exhibited in Rome

Exhibited for the first time in Europe at MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome, Italy, Bob Dylan. Retrospectrum is the first comprehensive retrospective dedicated to the visual art works of Bob Dylan, one of the most important icons of world contemporary culture.
On display until April 20th 2023, the Roman show displays over 100 works spanning Bob Dylan’s 50-plus years of creative activity, including paintings, watercolours, ink and graphite drawings, metal sculptures and video material.

When I Paint My Masterpiece (commission) by Bob Dylan, 2020, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

After being housed at the MAM in Shanghai and the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum in Miami, the exhibition Bob Dylan. Retrospectrum, curated by Shai Baitel, arrived in Italy in December and has been specifically redesigned to interact with the futuristic spaces of the MAXXI building in Rome, designed by architect Zaha Hadid.

Bob Dylan said, “It’s gratifying to learn that my visual works are going to be exhibited at MAXXI in Rome, a truly great museum in one of the world’s most beautiful and inspirational cities. This exhibition is meant to provide perspectives that examine the human condition and explore the mysteries of life that continue to leave us perplexed. It’s very different from my music, of course, but every bit as purposeful in its intent”.

This career-spanning exhibition showcases Bob Dylan’s unique approach to visual art and command of painting, drawing, and sculpting. It provides a special opportunity to view Dylan’s creative journey across time and locations, including the steps at Rome’s Piazza di Spagna as captured in the featured work “When I paint my Masterpiece”.

curator Shai Baitel

Artworks on display highlight the motifs that have always been part of Dylan’s imagination as a musician and that also return in his paintings in the form of drawings and colours.

As he himself writes in the exhibition catalogue (curated by Shai Baitel and published by Skira), his visual artworks narrate “the American landscape—how you see it while crisscrossing the land and seeing it for what it’s worth. Staying out of the mainstream and traveling the back roads, free-born style”. As in his songs and poems, Dylan makes the depths of the US poetic in his paintings. “I chose images because of the meanings they have for me”, he writes. “These paintings are up to the moment realism—archaic, most static, but quivering in appearance. They are the world that I see or choose to see or be a part of or gain entrance to. However, that’s my doing”.

The exhibition itinerary is divided into eight sections that trace Dylan’s journey in the visual arts and, at the same time, bring us into contact with his creativity as a musician, poet and artist.

Drawings populate the exhibition in sections spanning from Early Works, that includes a selection of drawings made in the 1970s in which Dylan took note of the reality around him, to the 2018 series Mondo Scripto, whereby the artist returned to the dialogue between music and visual art by producing a series in which the handwritten lyrics of his most representative songs are accompanied by original drawings recalling the titles or key moments of the songs themselves.

  1. Bob Dylan, Endless Highway, 2015-2016, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

  2. Bob Dylan, Abandoned Motel, Eureka, 2015-2016, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

  3. Bob Dylan, Corner Café, 2021, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

Dylan’s visual journey across the American landscape is narrated through paintings in The Beaten Path, a section of the exhibition where the artist’s works investigate the beauty hiding in everyday’s life: the painter-songwriter finds it in motels and diners, abandoned amusement parks and vintage cars, and large buildings illuminated by streetlamps. Another series of artworks called New Orleans immortalises the bond between Dylan and the city, located at the southern end of one of America’s most famous roads, Highway 61, (also known as ‘The Blues Highway’), which runs north-south through the central part of the United States and passes through the places of Dylan’s childhood.

Dylan’s focus on the recurring theme of travel can also be found in The Drawn Blank series, a sort of illustrated diary depicting snapshots of life on the road – portraits, historical places, panoramas and hidden corners. The series originated from a collection of charcoal pencil and pen sketches made by Dylan between ’89 and ’92 during tours in America, Europe and Asia. Over the years, Dylan has modified the drawings several times, adding detail, colour and depth.

  1. Bob Dylan, Spectator Sport, 2020, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

  2. Bob Dylan, Red Sunset, 2019, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

  3. Bob Dylan, Malboroman, 2021, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

Another piantings’ series, Deep Focus, features works with particular framings and image cuts inspired by the documentary spirit of photography and cinema, whilst Dylan gets experimental with the series Revisionist, in which he reworks the graphic design of famous magazine covers such as ‘Rolling Stone’ and ‘Playboy’, transforming them into large-scale screenprinted images.

The exhibition itinerary closes with Ironworks a series of iron sculptures – functional structures composed of objects and tools put to new use that recall Dylan’s childhood memories of the mining area of northern Minnesota, as well as the United States’ iconic industrial past.

With works that transcends generations, places, and circumstances, Dylan speaks to the enduring core of our humanity. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that Dylan continues to remain a creative powerful force.

curator Shai Baitel
  1. Bob Dylan, Ironworks

    MAXXI, Installation View, Bob Dylan Retrospectrum © Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini, Fucilla, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

  2. MAXXI, Installation View, Bob Dylan Retrospectrum © Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini, Fucilla, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

  3. Bob Dylan, ph. Ken Regan, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI