Drawn Blank in Provence
The Art of Bob Dylan Comes to Southern France

June 15, 2022

All artwork used with permission.

We’ve come a long way from when the idea of the “renaissance man (or woman)” first developed in the 15th century. Leonardo da Vinci is generally regarded as the ultimate example of someone who excelled in a variety of arts, fields and talents. He was a painter, an engineer, a scientist, an architect and more. Benjamin Franklin was a writer, a scientist, a statesman, a diplomat, a printer and a philosopher among other things. Marie Curie was a physicist, a chemist, an inventor and a mathematician. Today it seems we prefer that people stick to one area, especially when it comes to the “arts” (at least in the U.S.).

When actors try to pursue a career in music they are very often not taken seriously (Kevin Bacon, Kevin Costner, Russel Crowe, Keanu Reeves and countless others). When musicians try their hand at visual arts they usually don’t achieve anywhere near the same level of success and fame (Ronnie Wood, Cat Stevens, David Bowie, John Mellencamp, Patti Smith, etc.). I’m willing to bet that most people don’t know that Lenny Kravitz, Graham Nash, David Byrne, Lou Reed and Michael Stipe are all accomplished photographers. It usually doesn’t have anything to do with the level of talent, it just seems we like our artists to “stay in their lane.”

Bob Dylan has been drawing, sketching and painting since at least the early 1960s, probably even before that. His paintings have adorned several album covers, most notably Music From Big Pink by the Band and his own Self Portrait and Planet Waves. He’s been creating “sculptures” from found iron objects for at least thirty or more years. He’s also said to have dabbled with ceramics, collages and stained glass. Still, most people only know him for his songwriting and his music. That began to change a bit in 2007 when he held his first gallery exhibition at the Kunst Sammlungen gallery in Chemnitz, Germany entitled The Drawn Blank Series. For six months the public was able to view around 140 watercolors and gouaches created by Dylan. More showings followed in 2010 (The Brazil Series at the Statens Museum in Copenhagen) and 2011 (The Asia Series at the Gagosian Gallery in New York).

I remember a bit of excitement surrounding these gallery showings at the time, but it seems that not a lot really changed in the public’s perception of Dylan. Very few people (other than dedicated fans) are aware of his visual works of art. In late April I saw an announcement that a new exhibit would be taking place at a large vineyard/museum not far from our home in Vence beginning in May. Carole was just returning from a month long trip to the U.S. and she wasn’t interested in going so I set off on a quick overnight trip on my own.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – credits at the bottom of each image – more info after the photo gallery]

The Backstory

In the spring of 1974 Bob Dylan was one of the most famous songwriters and musicians in the world. His most recent album, Planet Waves, was the first Number One album of his career, topping the charts in February. He’d just finished a hugely successful 32 date arena tour with The Band (later immortalized on the live album Before The Flood).

But it wasn’t music that Dylan was chasing in May of that year it was something far deeper. He had turned to Norman Raeben (the son of Sholem Aleichem, a famous Yiddish writer) in hopes of learning more about Jewish philosophy. At least that’s how it started. He winded up taking painting classes from Raeben for almost two months. Intense painting classes. Five days a week. From 8:30 in the morning until 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon.

These painting classes would end up becoming invaluable to Dylan as he once again sought to reinvent himself. As he experimented with painting and visual art he began to more closely examine things like time and perspective, space and context, synchronicity and harmony. Later Dylan would credit Raeben with changing the way he looked at songwriting. In interviews from the late 1970s he acknowledged that the songs from his 1975 masterpiece Blood On The Tracks where heavily influenced from the concepts and theories he was exposed to in Raeben’s painting classes.

After two months Dylan discontinued the classes, he said in part because Raeben was so extremely harsh and critical. Yet he did not consider the experience a negative one. It may be that Raeben’s sharp comments and direct critiques were exactly what Dylan needed to move on to the next phase of his development. Dylan explained, “He didn’t teach you so much how to draw. He taught you putting your head and mind and your eye together. He looked into you and told you what you were.”

While on tour in the late 1980s and early 1990s Dylan created a number of black and white pencil and charcoal sketches, mostly drawn from his travels through Mexico, Asia, the U.S. and Europe. Many of these were published in 1994 as the book Drawn Blank. Later many of them were used as the starting point for the full color paintings he would eventually exhibit to the public. He paints a wide variety of subjects including landscapes, streets, buildings, vehicles, portraits, still lifes, nudes and more.

There was a bit of controversy and debate surrounding the 2011 Asia Series displayed at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. The exhibit was described as, “firsthand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape.” However, several fans and “Dylanologists” noticed that the paintings bore a strong similarity to photographs Dylan did not take. Michael Gray, a noted Dylan biographer, pointed out that a painting by Dylan which shows three young men playing a board game on a sidewalk is almost identical to a photograph by Dmitri Kessel. Another painting depicting two men bore a striking resemblance to a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. There were more examples. It wasn’t really “plagiarism” per se, but it did cause a lot of people to question Dylan’s ethics. Some felt that if he used photographs from others as the basis for his paintings he should have acknowledged them.

In 2013 an exhibit called “Bob Dylan: Face Value,” was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London (which is normally dedicated exclusively to portraits of famous and historically important Brits). The show was comprised of twelve pastel drawings of people like Red Flanagan, Skip Sharpe and Ursula Belle.

Dylan’s first exhibition of sculpture works, Mood Swings, took place in 2013 at the Halcyon Gallery, also in London. It consisted of a variety of “gates,” made from repurposed pieces of iron like chains, tools, car parts and more. A large iron “arch” was permanently installed in 2016 at the MGM National Harbor in Maryland. The U.S. Embassy in Mozambique is said to have purchased one of this gates.

In 2008, after the first gallery showing in Germany, a series of limited edition graphics was released and many of them sold out immediately upon release. In 2018, to “celebrate” the 10th anniversary of the original collection, a “special commemorative series” was launched consisting of 14 of his most popular works.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – credits at the bottom of each image – more info after the photo gallery]

Château la Coste

Located just outside of Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade (about 1/2 hour due north of Aix-en-Provence) Château la Coste is a sprawling complex (220 hectares / 544 acres) consisting of vineyards, a winery, a luxury hotel and spa (Le Spa – Villa La Coste), villas, event centers, four restaurants (Tadao Ando Café Restaurant, Argentinian Restaurant Francis Mallmann, Terrasse Provençale and Restaurant Vanina), art galleries, a bookstore and contemporary art exhibitions. In the official brochure it is described as “a vineyard where vines, art and architecture live in harmony.” Oaks, olive trees, pines, chestnut and cypress trees join the grape vines and the art in creating a one of a kind landscape.

Paddy McKillen, an Irish art collector, began the transformation of the winery into a showcase of modern art in 2004. He invited guest artists and architects to create works of art on the grounds and gave them carte blanche with regards to their work. It was first opened to the public in 2011. Today about 1/2 the estate consists of the vineyards with the rest being dedicated to art and other enterprises.

The wines produced at Château la Coste have been labeled “Agriculture Biologique” since 2009. Their organic approach ensures the preservation of the soil and the surrounding environment. Tastings are available throughout the day and sommeliers are at your disposal to answer any questions about the wines and help you find the best match for your needs.

A map of the art installations at Château la Coste. Click for a larger, PDF version.

Today when you arrive at the Château it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the expansiveness of it all. It really is like a little village unto itself. You can easily spend an entire morning or afternoon and not see everything there is to see. Many people stay for more than one day. Frequent concerts, conferences, film exhibitions and more contribute to the vast influx of visitors.

As you make your way from the parking lot to the reception area you walk alongside large fields of grape vines before passing by a huge pool of water with a large sculpture by Louise Bourgeois entitled “Crouching Spider.” In the grass across from this pool is a metal sculpture by Sean Scully entitled “Boxes Full of Air.” Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the welcome center is a single-level concrete, metal and glass building, long and clean.

Altogether there are almost 40 works of contemporary art located outside on the grounds of the château spread out amongst fields and vineyards. If you want to follow the trail and visit each piece of art make sure to get a map from the welcome center. You’ll never be able to navigate the small paths and trails without it! You’ll need to allow at least 3 hours to complete the tour, and I’d recommend even more time.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – credits at the bottom of each image – more info after the photo gallery]

The Bob Dylan Paintings

Drawn Blank in Provence is Bob Dylan’s first painting exhibition in France and I can’t think of a better way or a better place to do it. Seeing these paintings here at the wonderful setting of Château la Coste brings a special sense of intimacy to the exhibit. Much better than some stale museum or art gallery in Paris. 23 previously unseen canvases are displayed in the beautiful Renzo Piano designed gallery located a short distance from the visitor’s center.

The gallery isn’t actually “underground” per se, but it is located on a section of land that has been dug out to allow the top of the building to just poke out above ground level. A long walkway leads to the entrance of the gallery with a concrete wall on one side and a slightly angled grass surface on the other. This walkway provides a beautiful passageway to the gallery and increases your sense of anticipation as you approach.

The first paintings that you see when you enter the gallery are not actually those of Bob Dylan. On the right wall, just past the doors, are six original paintings by some of the most famous and well-known 20th century masters of modern art: Pissarro, Chagall, Monet, Matisse and Renoir. The official word is that these paintings “are exhibited here opposite Dylan’s canvases to shine light on some of his artistic inspirations.” But I think it’s more than that. It sets the tone immediately and subtly (even subconsciously) conveying the message that Bob Dylan belongs here with these masters, that his work stands alongside theirs. While I think most everyone would agree that this is, in fact, not true, it’s a clever tactic. Bob Dylan is easily one of the best songwriters of all-time (in my opinion the very best), but his paintings don’t rise anywhere near this level. They’re good, even excellent from time to time, but at the same level as these others? No. There are even two original Picasso‘s arranged between two of Dylan’s paintings on a back wall.

Once you move past the other paintings Dylan’s work takes center stage. The pieces are arranged on the walls of the small gallery one by one, except for a grouping of four and another grouping of six on the longest wall. Interestingly, almost all of Dylan’s work is vertically orientated. There was only one horizontal painting and a couple that were almost square.

What jumps out at you first are the colors, very bright, vivid and strong. There are no muted colors or pastels here. Dylan’s palette is intense and striking which infuses the compositions with a vibrant and exciting energy. Even a still life of fruit on a table alongside a coffee pot feels dynamic and animated. The colors are one of my favorite things about these paintings.

Similar to Picasso, Braque, Cézanne and even Van Gogh who used their brushes to recreate reality in a surrealistic manner, Dylan approaches his subjects with a slightly distorted eye. There are very few straight lines, the foregrounds and backgrounds seem to blend together in places and space becomes a bit jumbled and messy. People, flowers, buildings, landscapes, boats, cars, tables, chairs and more all take on a sort of tangled and slightly chaotic feel that, along with the colors, animates the paintings with a compelling spirit of intensity and passion.

Dylan’s paintings are probably not for everyone and I must admit I’m nowhere near a fan of his artwork as I am his music. Still there is something special about the work and I would recommend, without hesitation, a visit to the Château la Coste to see these canvases to anyone who loves art.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – credits at the bottom of each image – more info after the photo gallery]

The Sculptures

There are three Dylan ironwork sculptures on display at Château la Coste. Two “gate” creations are placed just outside of the back of the gallery, visible through large glass walls, as part of the temporary exhibition. “Rail Car” is located quite a distance away from the gallery and is a permanent installation as part of the Château’s outdoor art estate. I find these sculptures much more interesting than I do Dylan’s paintings.

From everything I’ve seen Dylan’s iron “sculptures” all tend to follow the same format. He takes existing metal (almost exclusively iron?) items and welds them together to form some type of basically flat gate, arch, wall, railing, etc. Each is very unique in its own way, but the style, approach and format remain the same. There’s lots of negative space between the various pieces.

You can’t really look at the two gates up close because they are located outside of the gallery, you can just peer at them through the large glass walls. They therefore seem a bit “removed.” The “Rail Car” is a whole different story. Dylan has created four walls and a ceiling which have been placed on the bed of an actual railway car which in turn sits on a small piece of railroad track. A small platform allows you to walk inside and experience the work up close, even touch it. I spent quite a bit of time examining this work and the perspective from the inside is quite different than that from the outside.

The placement of this Rail Car piece is wonderful, sitting all on its own out in a large field next to rows and rows of grapevines. It seems to fit in perfectly with the natural surroundings and you feel as if you’ve just stumbled upon it while out hiking in the woods.

It’s not hard to make a connection between the “abstract” pieces of iron art and many of Dylan’s songs. Take “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as one example:

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
Man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get paid off

© Bob Dylan

The dazzling torrent of words referencing mostly unconnected people, events and things is very similar to the visual impact of the iron work. All kinds of objects exist next to each other. There’s no order, it all seems completely random and yet in the end, just like with the songs, everything seems to fit together perfectly and make sense on some kind of deep subconscious level. Bottom line… I’m a fan of this work.


The Drawn Blank in Provence exhibition runs from May 9th until August 15, 2022. The Rail Car sculpture is a permanent part of the outdoor artwork at Château la Coste. The gallery is open to the public daily from 12pm to 5pm. Normal admission is 14€ per person.

Château la Coste can be easily reached by taking the D14 due north from Aix-en-Provence and following the directions for Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade. You’ll find the château on the left side of the road about 4 kilometers before Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade. If you’re coming in from the north along the A51 take exit 15 in the direction of Pertuis and then merge onto the D15. Follow the signs for the château, passing through Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade.

There are two parking areas, one outside and one inside. Both are free.

Note: It is not my intention to infringe on any copyrights in any way. When I was visiting the exhibit photos were allowed. I had questions and concerns about using my photos of Dylan’s paintings in this article so I contacted the Château la Coste. They were kind enough to send me some publicity photos and also told me that I was free to use my own photos from the exhibit as long as I (of course) credited Dylan. My intention is to show people what Dylan’s artwork is like in hopes of encouraging them to visit this exhibition. If, however, anyone in Dylan’s camp objects to my use of any of these photos just contact me and I will immediately remove them.

Juste les Faits:
What: Château la Coste
Where: Le Puy-Sainte-Réparde (Google Maps)
When: Paintings just until August 15, 2022, but the Rail Car sculpture is a permanent fixture
Phone: 04 42 61 89 98
Facebook: Chateau.La.Coste

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