Alternative Perceptions: A Review of Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait”

When I was twelve, I stole my first record from my grandma’s vast record collection: Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait. I was familiar with his popular works–Like a Rolling Stone, Blowin’ in the Wind, Knocking on Heaven’s Door–but I had never heard of Self Portrait. On the cover was a poorly painted, seemingly half-finished portrait of a man with a vacant expression. I asked grandma about it later and she said it was a beautiful painting by Dylan himself and that it was considered a masterpiece by many. I couldn’t see it. Why would anyone consider this a masterpiece? If this is what the cover looks like, I thought, god knows what the music must sound like.

The album was released in 1970 to generally negative reviews, with Greil Marcus asking in his Rolling Stone review, “What is this shit?” Dylan was a stranger to the fine arts at the time; his only fine artwork known to the public was his infantile painting for the Band’s Music from Big Pink album.

The reproduced album cover is a mere twelve by twelve inches. Sloppily applied, the colors are bland and muted neutrals. Underlying steel and cadet blues mixed with light greys, create a depressive mood and give a base for the patchy, overlying skin tones: a mix of cameo tan and dark goldens. Within certain brushstrokes, it seems as if Dylan did not clean his brush before adding a new color, causing it to look lazily completed. The radical and abstract facial features, outlined with thick grey, seem almost a nod to the French Expressionist Georges Rouault. Yet, because of these frenzied brushstrokes and abstract features, I can’t help but feel Dylan gathered his inspiration from German Expressionism–distorted colors and scales, exacerbation, harsh outlines–to the point where it seems clichéd.

The self-portrait’s resemblance to Dylan himself is arguably the most problematic aspect of the painting. At surface value, from images of Dylan at the time, it does a poor job at accurately representing him. His hair, thick, long, and brown. His nose, slender. The only similar feature is his slightly rotund jaw. But do we pay millions of dollars for Van Gogh’s olive trees because they really look like olive trees or because they look more realistic than anyone else’s olive trees? No. We do so because we want to experience Van Gogh’s alternative perception of the world.

All of this – the lack of representation, the stale similarities to German Expressionism – leads me to wonder why anyone even cares about Self Portrait. Would it be as popular as it is if its creator weren’t Bob Dylan? Would the Museum of Modern Art have it on display if its creator hadn’t sold more than 100 million albums? By creating what appears to be a half-finished, amateurish painting, Dylan has tapped into our obsession with the perception of art.

When I play the record, I like to prop the album cover up so I can look at it. I can’t help but feel that the portrait is a visual representation of the music on the album: poorly arranged, chaotic, unsophisticated. I look into the brushstrokes and feel discontentment. I look at the asymmetrical facial figures and remember grandma’s assessment, and can only wonder if she was projecting her love for Dylan onto a face that doesn’t even look like his. It’s dull, apprehensive, and rudimentary. Yet both grandma and the Museum of Modern Art would argue that it is a masterpiece, perhaps because they want to see a little bit of Dylan’s alternative perception in those brushstrokes. In a way, grandma was right: It is a masterpiece, but only because it was painted by Bob Dylan.

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Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait” (1970).