Bob Dylan is arguably the most prolific artist alive. In 78 years, he has chalked up 38 studio albums, 91 singles, 40 music videos, 11 books, a Nobel Prize and the American Medal of Freedom from Barak Obama, thousands of live concerts. His second (second!) musical is set to hit Broadway in 2020. Somehow, he's managed to squeeze in five decades of drawing, painting, and sculpting, creating a body of work that often reflects his songs. The Modern Art Museum Shanghai is the first stop in the world tour of Bob Dylan’s Retrospectum, a brand new exhibition displaying nearly 300 pieces of Dylan's artwork.
The show starts on the second floor of the museum with an introduction to Dylan and his early career, when he first moved to New York City in the early 1960s. There's a reproduction of the Greenwich Village nightclub 'Cafe Wha?' where Dylan used to play, with its high tables, simple stage, and brick walls covered in posters.
The next hall is divided into decades; for each decade, there's an old television set playing images and audio from his performances. In the background, there are projections of historical moments that relate to the songs. Blowing in the Wind for MLK's "I Have a Dream"; Knockin' of Heavens Door with the fall of the Berlin Wall; Things Have Changed with scenes representing the rise of the Chinese economy.
Seven series of Dylan's artworks are displayed on the third and fourth floors. One of them contains his sculptures: heavy ironworks made junkyard detritus. There's a room made up like his art studio in Los Angeles, resembling a warehouse filled with rusted iron. One of the most impressive pieces is a gate made of farm equipment, chains, cogs, and wheels. Visitors are encouraged to touch the sculptures.
Following his sculptures is Mondo Scripto, a later series of drawings and handwritten lyrics, a pastiche of his visual art and his songwriting, as Dylan revisits some of his most well-known songs and creates their visual representation. Some of his illustrations are truly brutal.
Dylan’s paintings are spread across the two top floors, figurative pieces with rough strokes and vivid colors, revolving around his understanding of people and history. They vary from intimate nudes to the ever-changing scenery he observed during long concert tours. Though he traveled the world, his most remarkable paintings reflect his vivid, nostalgic memories of American culture: petrol stations, roadside diners, motels, juke joints, and other quintessential elements of the highway landscape. He also painted big cities, especially New York, a place that always inspired him, and New Orleans, paying homage to the birthplace of Jazz.
His most recent paintings are shown in a monumental room, including a towering installation of 25 canvases that juxtaposes light and darkness, old and new. On the opposite side, visitors can see his first triptych, depicting a classic blue Cadillac driving into the sunset in a deserted landscape. The sunlight touches the highway and makes it glow. It looks like the ending to a Hollywood movie.
Dylan’s artworks are complemented by projections of his music clips and live performances, adding a necessary soundtrack to the exhibition. In the very last room, a projection of a 1975 live performance of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall gives visitors a taste of what a live concert must have felt like.
Bob Dylan’s Retrospectum will shake fans and non-fans alike. It's bold and impressively presented. Unlike other exhibitions about superstars, it doesn't fixate on accoutrements, the personal artifacts and clothes. Instead, it immerses you in his life and his time, leading you to understand Dylan’s world and extraordinary achievements through his own artistic eye. In a word, it's epic.
Bob Dylan's Retrospectum is on at Modern Art Museum from Sep 28 until Jan 5, 2020 (except Mondays). It's open from 10am-6pm (last admission 5.30pm). Tickets are 138rmb.