Portrait of a Dissident

The pastel drawings 
in Face Value, 

an exhibition at 

London's National Portrait Gallery, 

are as tough and as full of character 

as Dylan's songs

and yet are 

another testimony to his creative power...

Dylan is showing his pastels in London at the National Portrait Gallery. Much like his songs, they are tough and characterful and impressive. Dylan has drawn 12 heads, partly from memories of real people, partly from imagination, and given them evocative names.

Each is linked to a phrase about faces. There's In Your Face: Nina Felix, who looks back at you with a sharp aggressive presence that's actually quite daunting, even though she's just a sketch on paper. Nina may or may not be a real person – these portraits are said to draw on various recollections and encounters – but Dylan gives her huge personality.

This and the other portraits make sense of why a man so steeped in language should choose to exhibit visual art. For these are words en-fleshed: Nina Felix physically embodies the cliché expression "in your face".

Similarly, the broken look of gangster-like Leon Leonard gives form to the expression "losing face". Red Flanagan, his eyes dark and narrow in his fleshy mask, must "face the consequences".

The words – these phrases about faces, and the names attached to them – seem to inspire the people created by Dylan's hand.

Or, perhaps we are just reading too much into this art, trying to embellish it and grow it to the point that it becomes more than it really is.

What makes this more than some stale conceptual exercise, however, is the ardor and integrity with which he carries it out. His drawings are firm and passionate, done with honesty and determination.

The energy with which Dylan makes his faces tangible and carnal is oddly moving. 

It reveals a poet's vision: this is an artist for whom words must mean something, suggest something, and here he gives weight and substance to words we say all this time. It comes down to the human face and our endless harping on it in everyday speech.

                                         It comes down to 

                                       the human face and

our endless discussion

as to what it means…

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