New Paintings Reignite The Bob Dylan Copycat Debate 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. Many of the pictures in his new show are direct copies from historical photographs, and some fans are calling foul.
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New Paintings Reignite The Bob Dylan Copycat Debate

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New Paintings Reignite The Bob Dylan Copycat Debate

New Paintings Reignite The Bob Dylan Copycat Debate

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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.


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.


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.


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.

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