Last week in the New York Times, I read an obituary for Barry Feinstein, the famed photographer of rock stars whose images include album covers for George Harrison and Janis Joplin. Is it any wonder then that the most famous image of a rock star visiting the Phillips is by Barry Feinstein? This image of Bob Dylan visiting the The Phillips Collection was taken in January 1974 during his Before the Flood tour. Prior to playing at the Capitol Center in the nearby Maryland suburbs, Dylan stopped by the museum and is photographed staring at El Greco’s Repentant St. Peter (c. 1600-05 or later).
A onetime museum assistant, working a shift as clerk in the shop, remembers Dylan paying for a few postcards with a handful of change he had to extract from the guitar picks he pulled from his pocket. The shop clerk, a longtime Dylan fan—he actually saw him at the Newport Folk festival (sigh of envy)—took careful note of the Phillips images selected by Dylan and can still recall them today. “He bought Georges Rouault’s Christ and the High Priest (c. 1937), Elena Povolozky by Modigliani (1917), one of the museum’s Rothkos, and a detail from Luncheon of the Boating Party (1800-81), along with a print of that work.”
While one could make an analysis of the postcards Dylan purchased, I think the image of him and El Greco’s St. Peter is more interesting. El Greco paints Peter the moment the apostle realizes that he has denied Christ for the third time. He looks heavenward in search of redemption. Yet in Peter’s face there is little doubt that he will be forgiven by God and that he will be accepted into the kingdom of Heaven. After all, El Greco’s work dates from the Counter Reformation when church officials sought to show Catholicism as compassionate and forgiving.
Dylan, for his part, was reinventing himself constantly and challenging his fans, changing musical styles almost with each album. This particular tour was his first in eight years, since a 1966 motorcycle accident almost killed him. The versions of his songs on the tour were often new arrangements of familiar tunes. Dylan did not think much of the tour. He and his band “the Band” played at large basketball arenas, and Dylan described the experience by saying, “I think I was just playing a role on that tour, I was playing Bob Dylan and The Band were playing The Band. It was all sort of mindless.”
So amusingly Dylan, like St. Peter as portrayed by El Greco, seemed to act as if he always would be forgiven and accepted by his fans, no matter what he did or how mystified they were by the new and different versions of the old familiar songs he played on that tour. Dylan shares Peter’s divine anxiety, asking forgiveness, but assured that he will be redeemed.
Paul Ruther, Manager of Teacher Programs
As my colleague Brooke has discovered in her exploration of the Phillips in pop culture, once you start looking for it, you can find the Phillips in the most unlikely places. For example, this “installation” in the windowsill of an estate sale off of Connecticut Ave. Both St. Peter masterpieces could have been mine!