New Paintings Reignite The Bob Dylan Copycat Debate

Oct 18, 2011
Originally published on October 18, 2011 8:23 pm

Legendary songwriter Bob Dylan is once again at the center of a controversy about plagiarism, but this time it's not about his words or his music — it's about his painting.

The Asia Series, Dylan's current one-man show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, was initially billed as the musician's visual response to his travels through Asia. But as it turns out, many of the pictures are direct copies from historical photographs.

Attentive fans on the Bob Dylan-centric website Expecting Rain were the first to notice something odd. Among the paintings included in Dylan's show is an image of two Chinese men that seems to be a full-color reproduction of a famous black-and-white photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Six other paintings in the show bear a striking resemblance to more obscure historical photographs of China and Japan.

'Love And Theft'

Rob Oechsle is an American photographer who's lived in Japan for much of the past 40 years. He runs a Flickr blog called Okinawa Soba, where he posts historical photos from his substantial archive and personal collection. He says he was surprised to recognize a few of his own photos in Dylan's show.

"I said, 'Wow, that's my stuff. Those are pictures from my archive,' " Oechsle remembers.

It's perfectly legal to copy images like Oechsle's, which are in the public domain, but Oechsle wishes Dylan had given some credit to his sources. He says Dylan is guilty of creating work that isn't part of his experience in Asia.

"It's plagiarism, plain and simple," Oechsle says. "To take something that's beautiful that someone else composed and just trace over it, get out your little paintbrushes and poster paints, paint over the lines, put that up and say, 'This is my experience; this is my composition; that is what I saw; this is what I did.' "

But that's just what the Gagosian Gallery did when it first announced the show, describing it as a visual journey with "firsthand depictions" of the musician's travels in Asia.

This isn't the first time Dylan's penchant for borrowing has gotten him in trouble. A song from his 2001 album, Love and Theft, lifted these lines from the Junichi Saga novel Confessions of a Yakuza:

My old man, he's like some feudal lord
He's got more lives than a cat
I've never seen him quarrel with my mother even once
Things come alive or they fall flat

Dylan was also caught borrowing quotes and anecdotes from Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Jack London and a host of other sources in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One.

Fans and critics largely defended him in those cases, but this time even some longtime Dylan watchers are dismayed

Michael Gray, a blogger and author of the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, says he's disappointed about what Dylan has presented as his own work.

"Lots of people paint from photographs," he says. "But ... the entire composition, the exact composition of a painting — Dylan has copied that. That just seems to me to betray a lack of ideas, a lack of originality about the whole thing."

Neither Dylan nor the Gagosian would grant interviews for this story, and the gallery no longer claims that the show is based solely on Dylan's travels in Asia.

Is It 'A Work Of Art'?

There's a long history of pop and rock musicians lifting lines — and entire songs — without credit. So maybe it's not surprising that Dylan fans don't seem to mind his sourcing, or lack thereof.

"I think it's a work of art, a piece of performance art," says Fred Bals, a writer who posts frequently on Expecting Rain. "It's a typical Bob Dylan statement."

Bals says he thinks Dylan must have known that someone would identify his historical source material sooner or later.

"Dylan said in an interview that he was painting from life," Bals says, "that he was painting in life from photographs."

He just didn't specify that he was painting Life, the magazine from which one of the images came. It's not clear if Dylan purchased rights to that image, but he does seem to have an arrangement with Magnum Photos, which owns the rights to three of the original images that appear in the show.

None of that is much consolation to photo blogger Rob Oechsle. But you still get the sense that he's willing to forgive Dylan.

"I just happen to love his music," he says. "And when he comes on the radio, I still lean over and turn up the dial."

The Asia Series is on display through Saturday. Dylan's gallery wouldn't say how much the paintings are selling for — but presumably, you could buy copies of the original photographs for quite a bit less.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Bob Dylan is at the center of a controversy over plagiarism. The music icon is also a painter and he currently has a one-man show in New York. Those paintings were initially billed as the Bob Dylan's visual responses to his travels through Asia.

But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, it appears that many of the pictures were copied from historical photographs.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It was attentive fans on the Bob Dylan-centric website, Expecting Rain, who first noticed something odd about his show at the Gagosian Gallery. A painting of two Chinese men is a full-color reproduction of a famous black-and-white photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Six other paintings in the show look a great deal like more obscure historical photos of China and Japan.

ROB OECHSLE: I said, Wow, that's my stuff. Those are pictures from my archive. Look at that.

ROSE: Rob Oechsle is an American photographer who's lived in Japan for much of the last 40 years. He runs a Flickr blog called Okinawa Soba, where he posts historical photos from his substantial archive. It is perfectly legal to copy images like these, which are in the public domain. Still, Oechsle wishes Dylan had given some credit to his sources.

OECHSLE: Its plagiarism, plain and simple, to take something that's beautiful that someone else composed and just trace over it. Get out your little paintbrushes and bottle of poster paints, paint over the lines, put that up and say: This is my experience. This is my composition. That is what I saw. This is what I did.

ROSE: But that's just what the Gagosian Gallery did when it first announced the show, describing it as a visual journal with, quote, "firsthand depictions," unquote, of Dylan's travels in Asia.

This is not the first time Dylan's penchant for borrowing has gotten him in trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) My old man, he's like some feudal lord. He's got more lives than a cat. I've never seen him quarrel with my mother even once. Things come alive or they fall flat...

ROSE: Dylan lifted the opening line of this verse and some others from the novel "Confessions of a Yakuza," for a song on his 2001 album titled, perhaps significantly, "Love and Theft." And he was caught borrowing quotes and anecdotes for his so-called "Memoir Chronicles: Volume I" from Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Jack London and a host of other sources.

Fans and critics largely defended him in those cases, but this time even some longtime Dylan watchers are dismayed. Michael Gray is a blogger and author of the "Bob Dylan Encyclopedia."

MICHAEL GRAY: My own feeling is one of essentially of disappointment, not that it's from a photograph, that's okay. Lots of people paint from photographs. But that the entire composition, the exact composition of a painting Dylan has copied that. That just seems to me to betray a lack of ideas, a lack of originality about the whole thing.

ROSE: Neither Dylan nor Gagosian would grant interviews for this story. The gallery is no longer claiming that the show is based solely on Dylan's travels in Asia.

To be fair, there is a long history of pop and rock musicians lifting lines and entire songs without credit. So maybe it's not surprising that some Dylan fans don't seem to mind his sourcing or lack thereof.

FRED BALS: I think it's a work of art, a piece of performance art. It's a typical Bob Dylan statement.

ROSE: Fred Bals is a writer who posts frequently on the website Expecting Rain. He thinks Dylan must have known that someone would identify his source material sooner or later.

BALS: Since a lot of them are historical images from the 1800s China, 1800s Japan, some even earlier. When Dylan said in an interview that he was painting from life, that was his meaning - that he was painting exactly from life, from photographs.

ROSE: He just didn't specify that he meant Life magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BALS: Yeah. And actually one of the painting's source image actually did come from Life magazine.

ROSE: It's not clear if Dylan purchased the rights to that image, though he does seem to have an arrangement with the Magnum photo agency. None of that is much consolation to photo blogger Rob Oechsle. Still, you get the sense that he's willing to forgive Dylan.

OECHSLE: I just happen to love his music. And when he comes on the radio, I still lean over and turn up the dial.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEDAY BABY")

DYLAN: (Singing) Someday everything is going to be smooth like a rhapsody. When I paint my masterpiece.

ROSE: The Asia Series by Bob Dylan is on display through Saturday. His gallery wouldn't say how much the paintings are selling for. I guess if you have to ask, you can't afford one. But presumably, you could buy copies of the original photographs for quite a bit less.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.