Bob Dylan’s new show of writings and drawings, Mondo Scripto, opens Tuesday (Oct. 9) at the Halcyon Gallery in London. The show features handwritten lyrics from some of Dylan’s best-known and best-loved songs coupled with drawings he has created to illustrate or accompany, or which are inspired by, or perhaps reveal his initial inspirations for, each. Dylan has written new words for some lines, in keeping with what we should have long realized by now is his lyric perfectionism. He drafts and revises songs live in performance; logically, he does it on paper, too.
In the artist’s image for the show, Dylan is writing out the opening lines from “Shelter From The Storm,” released on his 1975 album Blood On The Tracks. Several songs from this, one of his most popular and increasingly critically praised albums, feature in Mondo Scripto. Johnny Borgan has previewed some of the changes Dylan has made for the exhibition, and many are major indeed. The forthcoming “official bootleg” of songs from the recording sessions for Blood On The Tracks, titled More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14, will give us even more versions of these particular songs — as unset-in-stone, rife with mutability, and free as lyric works of art should ever be.
Contact Halcyon Gallery for individual works from the show and for the exhibition catalog. However, limited editions of some of the words and accompanying images are already available through The Westover Gallery and Castle Fine Art. There is also a boxed set of 10 images, framed or unframed; a limited edition book; and a “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” portfolio drawn from the beautiful lament Dylan wrote for the film Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973). The song appears only briefly in the movie, but (spoiler) you can never forget it playing as Katy Jurado watches Slim Pickens sink to his knees.
In the exhibition book, Dylan notes as two inspirations for his drawings the art of Henrik Drescher and of Reginald Marsh. Drescher is a contemporary Danish illustrator well known for his work on Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. Marsh (1898-1854) was — like Dylan, later — a New Yorker and a Woodstocker. He lived for many years in Woodstock, New York, where his large white frame house with its banks of windows still sits on the edge of the Millstream. His Manhattan street scenes, book illustrations, and cartoons for The New Yorker have a vitality and motion you need to see to appreciate.
Reginald Marsh, “Wooden Horses” (1936), Wadsworth Atheneum via WNPR
Of the images from Mondo Scripto I have seen to date, two are already particular favorites. The first is for “Forever Young,” the 1973 song that too many people still believe stemmed from a line of John Keats’s. Dylan has chosen “May you build a ladder to the stars” to illustrate, and the image makes me think of Saint-Exupéry’s celestial scenes in Le Petit Prince (1943, when Dylan himself was a toddler), as well as of William Blake’s fantasy of 1793, the tiny engraving “I want! I want!”
The other is the image at the top of this article, and it accompanies “Like A Rolling Stone” (1965). Behold Napoleon, in a very accurate drawing based upon Jacques-Louis David’s painting of the emperor in his study, 1812. In Dylan’s art, the gleaming military tunic, epaulets, ribbons, and medals are gone. Napoleon in rags: here he is. Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse.