‘Maybe it’s perfectly legitimate that they are here because it’s Bob Dylan that painted them’ mumbles someone gliding past the dozen portraits by the veteran rocker that will be housed until January 5 in an unassuming, ticket-free, grey room of the National Portrait Gallery.
Debate over the merits of Dylan’s thuggish mugshots aside (with each distorted, imaginary figure purporting ‘familiar characteristics’, you may spy a trace of Mick Jagger, or some hint of Prince Harry’s jawline), ‘Face Value’ is the latest in a trickling line of musical fame-affiliated exhibits to grace some of London’s most established museums and galleries.
Earlier this year ‘David Bowie is’ became a ‘blockbuster’ for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), running for five months and enticing a total of 311,956 visitors. Taking to an entirely different kind of stage in South Kensington’s treasure trove of artefacts, the hype surrounding the show of film, photography and costume made headlines of its own, before becoming the museum’s fastest selling exhibition to date. The soloist’s wardrobe beat out another recent collection of pop cultural cloth, last year’s three-month run of ‘Hollywood Costume’, also at the V&A, by a footfall of almost half a million.
That these celebrity-pinned exhibitions excel in promoting accessibility and visitor figures is undeniable. But are exhibitions about or by musician-artists enough to inspire return visits to less glamorous collections? Showcasing far more traditional fare at half the ticket price, ‘Treasures of the Royal Court’ overlapped with Bowie’s CV-in-review between March and July but was eclipsed by the blockbuster, drawing just over 76,500 people to its Tudor, Stuart and Russian Tsar-themed displays.
Besides super-fan collectors looking to acquire pieces created by their guitar-wielding idols (Ronnie Wood’s paintings continue to roll out, whilst John Lennon’s doodles have the charm of simplicity), artworks by musician-artists hold a pedigree perhaps not dissimilar to celebrity fragrances by multi-platinum doyennes such as Britney Spears or Mariah Carey.
It is not that the canvases, prints or photographs lack value, but rather that they are almost inextricably construed as by-products of prepossessed renown; vocational sidelines that can’t quite shake the frenzy surrounding their origins.
This type of exhibition is not new, however, especially for the V&A. An exhibition of Kylie Minogue’s performance costumes in 2007 was swiftly followed by a five-month display of dresses worn by The Supremes in 2008 (including an additional set that had been sported by Destiny’s Child, in good contemporary measure for fans still mourning the Beyoncé-led band’s split two years before).
Nor is the trend standing still. In the wake of a focus on pop and now Dylan’s rock’n’roll offering, museums and galleries could already be bracing for the next musical genre to arrive. Maybe hip hop and its R’n’B companions? Perhaps this year’s Art Basel surprise act, Kanye West, will one day present his album covers for exhibition alongside the products of his brief stint at the American Academy of Art. It could happen.
‘Bob Dylan: Face Value’ is at the National Portrait Gallery until 5 January 2014.