There are artists and there are artists – and Bob Dylan is both: The world-famed guitar strummer is an almost equally mean hand with pencil and paintbrush.

It is Dylan’s visual, rather than aural, oeuvre that is on display in Shanghai in a high-profile, multi-media exhibition that flung open its doors today, that runs through till January 5.

“Retrospectum Bob Dylan” is housed in the Modern Art Musuem, Shanghai, a Tate Modern-style converted coal bunker on the bank of the Whampoa River in the city’s Pudong district. It features over 250 works loaned from private collections around the world and from Dylan himself.

The exhibition doubles as a coming-of-age party for the gallery itself — a new jewel in Shanghai’s cultural crown, which has been in “soft opening” mode since 2017.

The epic of Dylan

Entry is via a spiral concrete staircase that has been branded with largely black-and-white images of Dylan, as featured on the covers of scores of magazines over the years — from Newsweek to Record Collector to Rolling Stone to Mojo.

Working on the assumption that 21st century Shanghai citizens will be unfamiliar with Dylan’s work and reputation, the exhibition is discretely informational, leveraging written word, audio-visual media and music, as well as the artworks themselves.

It opens with giant LED screens running edited TV interviews — subtitled in Chinese — with the man himself. In one vintage clip, a youthful-looking Dylan makes clear that,  yeah,  oh yeah, he is definitely as interested in painting and sculpting as he is in singing and songwriting.

Projected still photographs and film clips showcase the poetic popster and clips from his concerts. His songs waft gently over the speakers as visitors progress from gallery to gallery.

In a bright red gallery, handwritten lyrics to his classic songs are hung next to related pencil sketches. “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall” is accompanied by a drawing of a tsunami overwhelming a city; “Masters of War” plays by a sketch of a traumatized-looking man hiding in a living room; “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by a drawing of a woman reaching out to touch a policeman’s badge.

Photo: Asia Times
Photo: Asia Times

Praise from Dylan fans — Bruce Springsteen, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs — make clear the depths of his achievements. Dylan, of course, has won virtually every award known to man, from Oscars to the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. All this, too, is explained in byte-sized nuggets.

From there on in, visitors are exposed to the full blast of Dylan’s artworks.

More color in his art

Perusing the works, one senses that there are two very different artists struggling inside this legendary figure.

The man’s musical compositions are marked by austere lyrics, deadpan vocals, sparse guitar chords and restrained emotion. He unleashes more color — and frankly, more joy — in his visual art.

From afar, many pieces look like explosions in a candy store. Wielding an impressionist’s unrestrained palette of pinks, yellows, oranges and blues, Dylan assaults his canvases with bold colors.

Many of his subjects are classic Americana: Burger joints, diners, motel signs, gas-guzzling autos, dilapidated farmsteads, the Brooklyn Bridge and — obviously a favorite motif — empty highways and rail lines stretching toward far horizons.

Photo: Asia Times
Photo: Asia Times

Photo: Asia Times

Sword-swallower, a Dylan sketch. Photo: Asia Times

Dylan’s early pencil sketches hint at Picasso. His more mature paintings, stylistically, offer a whiff of Van Gogh.

But Dylan also brings to bear a photographer’s angled eye, particularly in his streetscapes, to intensify perspective. And he indulges in some theatricality, as in paintings of a woman breaking up a street fight, an African-American preacher gazing out of the canvas, and lovers kissing in mid-dance.

The exhibition is not restricted to pen and paint.

Dylan’s metalwork sculptures — constructed of old tools and chunks of disused machinery — are exhibited in a gallery fitted out like an abandoned tool shop. Standout pieces are silhouetted against giant black-and-white photos of derelict industry-scapes.

Photo: Asia Times

The exhibition also features some whimsical local nods. Dylan’s song “Things Have Changed” is accompanied by a film projection of then-and-now Shanghai. And in an upstairs, lyrics are stencilled on the windows of a gallery that looks out over the Whampoa.

The final gallery is a piece de resistance that prompts a “deep-gasp” reaction: A doorway leads into a huge, dark, stark space in which are hung selections of Dylan’s biggest and most colorful canvases.

‘Full spectrum’ experiences

Derek Yu. Photo: Asia Times

The new exhibition is critical for the museum, according to the museum’s director.

“We soft-opened in 2017 – we have been experimenting a programmings and facilities,” Derek Yu, 49, the  Modern Art Museum’s director, told Asia Times. “This exhibition is our grand opening.”

So why Bob Dylan?

“The museum’s mission is to create new storytelling about art and to provide experiences for visitors, but not in a didactic way,” Derek Yu said. “We strive to bring a full spectrum of sensory experiences.”

It is this “full spectrum” ambition that made Dylan the perfect persona to showcase in the museum’s breakout exhibition.

“Bob Dylan is such a multi-dimensional artist – who could better provide such a great platform?” Yu asked. “The story is about his vision, his mission.”

According to at least one opening-day visitor, the museum’s storytelling approach has paid off.

Tiffany Dai. Photo: Asia Times

“I studied in the US for eight years, so I knew of Dylan, but did not really know what he did,” said Tiffany Dai, a 25-year-old finance-sector worker who had bought an early-bird ticket to the exhibition. “Now, I am inspired by his words: ‘You are not finding yourself, you are creating yourself.’”

To Shanghai with love

Xi-era China is currently engaged in a no-holds-barred trade war with Trumpian USA, but if Modern Art Museum, Shanghai is any indication, there is no enmity in the cultural space. On the contrary, there appears a strong local fascination with US pop and pop art.

Downstairs from the Dylan exhibition, the gallery’s café space features garish, US-style illuminated diner signage, while the gift shop’s quirky offerings are heavy on Andy Warhol and Marvel comic artworks.

More broadly, Shanghai residents who Asia Times spoke to appeared less interested in Fortress China, more interested in a cultured, cosmopolitan identity.

Terry Tian. Photo: Asia Times

“I want to know more about cultural differences, and understand their impact,” Terry Tian, 30, a visiting local ad executive told Asia Times. “What I learned, was the relationship between industry and art, and the dreams of the US.” He said the exhibition would inspire him in his work.

Dai said: “Shanghai is very vibrant, there are a lot of young people here from all over the world. I find people in Shanghai are very interested in art events — you see long lines at galleries.”

Yu’s ambition is to add new artistic oomph to his city: “Our ambition is for the museum to form one of the pillars of Shanghai’s emerging destination brand.”

However, he refused to be drawn on any overseas inspirations or models. “The benchmark is ourselves!” he said.

Date: September 28, 2019 to January 5, 2020 (closed on Mondays), 10am-6pm.

Venue: Modern Art Museum Shanghai

Address: 4777 Bingjiang Ave, Pudong

Ticket: 150 yuan (US$21)

Shanghai Modern Art Museum. Photo: Asia Times
Photo: Asia Times