Bob Dylan and the Arts: Songs, Film, Painting, and Sculpture in Dylan’s Universe. Edited by Maria Anita Steffanelli, Alessandro Carrera, and Fabio Fanuzzi. Roma: Edizioni Storia e Letteratura, 2020. vii + 257 pp. €18,00/$20.50 U.S.
REVIEW BY Mark DeStephano, Saint Peter’s University
Volume 35 of the “Biblioteca di Studi Americani” (Library of American Studies), this work is a collection of essays which is the fruit of collaboration between Italian and American scholars. The book is divided into three sections: (1) Literature and Linguistics/Letteratura e Linguistica; (2) Music and Cinema/Musica e Cinema; and (3) Art/Arte. The collection contains articles that are written in both Italian and English, and offers a unique appreciation of the diverse creative elements that are present in Dylan’s work, especially those originating in Italian culture. In her introduction to the section entitled “Literature and Linguistics/Letteratura e Linguistica,” Maria Anita Steffanelli reminds readers that “Bob Dylan is a multimedia artist, a songwriter who crosses over the confines of music, language, and performance so as to sculpt and chisel, to improvise and to devote himself to the cinematographic turn, to design, to paint, and to dedicate himself to graphics” [“Bob Dylan è artista multimediale, un cantautore che attraversa i confini di musica, linguaggio e performance per scolpire e cesellare, improvvisare e darsi alla regia cinematografica, disegnare, dipingere e dedicarsi alla grafica”—all translations are my own] (4). And thus, the purpose of this collection is revealed, “In the essays that are offered, the position of the artist is evaluated with regard to the arts in which he has engaged, giving attention to sound, to the word, to the visual element, and to gesture” [“Nei saggi proposti si valuta la posizione dell’artista rispetto alle arti in cui si cimenta, dedicando attenzione al suono, alla parola, al elemento visuale, al gesto”] (4). Steffanelli’s introduction to the section includes a brief synopsis of each of the articles, including those of Caterina Ricciardi, “Bob Dylan: disincanti” [“Bob Dylan: Disenchantments”], Giulio Carlo Pantalei, “Machivellerie dylaniane: letteratura italiana ri-visitata” [“Dylanesque Machiavellianisms: Italian Literature Revisited”], Massimo Bacigalupo, “Reading Ricks Reading Dylan,” Daniele Baglioni, “Pronouns in Dylan’s Early Songs. An Insight into Dylanesque Personal Deixis,” and Renato Giovannoli, “Retorica trasformazionale. Il canzoniere di Bob Dylan come palinsesto biblico” [“Transformational Rhetoric: Bob Dylan’s Songbooks as Biblical Palimpsest”]. This impressive array of studies considers Dylan’s work from several unique perspectives, challenging those who hear or study Dylan’s work to consider that, as Caterina Ricciardi observes of “Desolation Row,” for example, “Bob Dylan is a champion/model of intertextuality in his reverse use of sources—in the manner of antiphrasis—in this poem of his that approximates the flipping of citations in the so-called Postmodern but which in reality is still a legacy of Modernism” [“È un campione dell’intertestualità, Bob Dylan, nell’usare le sue fonti a rovescio—in modo antifrastico—in questa sua poesia vicina ai ribaltamenti citazionali del cosiddetto Postmoderno ma in realtà ancora di eredità modernista”]. It is ironic that the Italian term “campione” can be translated as both “champion” and “model,” highlighting, as do all of the collection’s essays, Dylan’s virtuosity and confirming his place in intellectual history.
In his introduction to section two, “Music and Cinema/Musica e Cinema,” Alessandro Carrera makes note of Dylan’s remarkable contribution to film, first made in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: “A film had never been seen in which the most pathetic scene was ‘doubled’ by an ‘extra-diegetic’ song, as film theoreticians say, that no one in the scene sings and which is totally superimposed over the action” [“Non si era mai visto un film in cui la scena più patetica venisse ‘raddoppiata’ da una canzone ‘extra-diegetica’, come dicono i teorici del cinema, che nessuno canta in scena ed è totalmente sovrimposta all’azione”] (70). Equally fascinating is Carrera’s assertion that the different aspects of Dylan’s interior being are revealed in something of a mysterious, hidden way:
In Dylan, these secret relations are present for anyone who wants to discover them, but not at the visual level. They are developed amidst the verses of songs and his voice, which sings them, not amidst the images and the music. As an author of songs, as a singer, Dylan is always in dialogue with other voices and with other songs, while as an author of images he does not find another that approaches his own, remaining closed, within his difficult, multiple identity, not managing to construct a bridge over which others might be able to pass [In Dylan, questi rapporti segreti sono presenti per chi li vuole scoprire, ma non a livello visivo. Si istituiscono tra i versi delle canzoni e la sua voce che li canta, non tra le immagini e la musica. Come autore di canzoni, come cantante, Dylan è sempre in dialogo con altre voci e con altre canzoni, mentre come autore di immagini non trova un suo prossimo, resta chiuso nella sua difficile, multipla identità, non riesce a erigere un ponte sul quale altri possano passare.] (71)
Dylan’s genius and complexity as a songwriter and musician and are brought to light in the remaining articles of this section, which are far-ranging, exploring numerous aspects of Dylan’s artistic environment and creation: Cesare Cusan, “Renaldo & Clara: Painting a Film” [“Renaldo & Clara: dipingere un film”], Alessandro Carrera, “Between the Shulamite and the Queen of Sheba: The Love Poem that Bob Dylan Could Not Write,” Elèna Mortara, “How the Winds Are Blowing: Joan Baez & Bob Dylan. A Personal Medley of Music, Memories, and Visions,” Chris Lowe, “The Greenwich Village Folk Scene; Was It Ever What It Used to Be? YES!: the Story Behind the Show,” Alex R. Falzon, “Ring Composition in Mr. Tambourine Man,” and Mario Gerolamo Mossa, “Don’t Look Back and “Ghost” of Like A Rolling Stone: Philology, Composition and Cinéma Vérité.”
The third and final section of this collection, “Art/Arte,” is particularly intriguing, not only because of its general consideration of the relationship between painting and music (who would have suspected that there was a connection between Van Gogh and Dylan!), but also because of its exploration of painter Norman Raeben’s profound influence on Dylan’s life and thought, a topic which merits extensive scholarly attention in the future. This collection offers a number of highly informative essays that help readers to consider some of the ways in which Raeben’s attitude towards life and his instruction of his pupil Dylan transformed the latter’s way of perceiving the world, and ultimately led to Dylan’s refashioning of his musical art. This section, which is dedicated to the artistic underpinnings of Dylan’s thought, concludes with an intriguing and well-illustrated presentation of Dylan’s roots in Minnesota, adding to the section’s fascinating panoply of perspectives on the songwriter’s intellectual and personal foundations: Fabio Fantuzzi, “Introduzione,” Maria Anita Steffanelli, “Another Side of Bob Dylan: “Dylan Is van Gogh. Van Gogh Is Dylan,” Claudia Carr Levy, “Norman Raeben,” John Smith Amato, “Art for Life’s Sake: The Work and Legacy of Norman Raeben,” Roz Jacobs, “The Idiot and the Genius,” Nico Stringa, “Norman Raeben: una modernità compatibile” [“Norman Raeben: A Compatible Modernity”], Fabio Fantuzzi, “Painting Songs, Composing Paintings: Norman Raeben and Bob Dylan,” and David Pichaske, “The Minnesota Connection of Bob Dylan’s Art.”
This volume demonstrates the increasing interest in and knowledge of Dylan’s works internationally, and represents a particularly significant contribution by Italian scholarship to the emerging field of Dylan Studies. The strength of the work lies in the breadth of areas that are studied, as well as the careful research and the meticulous crafting of the articles. A minor weakness—and it pains me to say this as a Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures—is the fact that some of the articles are written in Italian, which somewhat narrows their accessibility to those who would be interested in the work. Nonetheless, both the editors and the authors of the articles of this collection are to be congratulated for their careful scholarship and great creativity in their study of a vast array of themes, and the excellent contribution their work makes to international Dylan Studies.