The King’s Cult of Personality at the National Portrait Gallery

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The curator of the National Portrait Gallery's recently opened exhibition on Elvis Presley is Warren Perry, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, who once worked at Graceland for a couple of months back in the late 1980s. His interest in Elvis was "more by immersion than intention," he says.

"You cannot grow up in Memphis without understanding the Elvis legacy."  Warren has an MA in English from the University of Memphis; he also holds an MFA in drama and play writing from Catholic University of America. After seeing the new exhibition, we had a couple of burning questions we put to Warren in an email exchange.

How do you explain the cult of personality surrounding Elvis?

I have been hesitant to give in to the notion of Elvis' fans being anything more than just fans, but more and more as the years go on, I see Elvis being lionized by people who are not his fans, necessarily, but rather scholars, poets, or artists. The writers have given Elvis a nice place within the literary canon, and the folks in Hollywood continue to perpetuate the Elvis myth in the cinema.  Really, I think Elvis was one of the first accessible entertainers—and by accessible, I mean provincial—with the pedigree of a mutt, who wallowed in his muttness and was loved for it.  He just happened to be a great-looking mutt who could cross a couple of octaves.  That he succumbed to the sins of the rock generation he created endears him to some and mystifies him to others.  Somewhere between that love and that paradox is the nucleus of the man from which the mythic Elvis evolved. Elvis is like a religious figure in that way, in that people build onto what they like about him or are mystified by, and create what they want to take away. That might be the beginning of the explanation. There is also this: Colonel Tom Parker (who was neither a colonel nor Tom Parker—the colonel title was an honorific and his real name was Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk) could have held a chair of excellence in marketing at the university of his choice. With Colonel Tom in his corner, Elvis' name stayed in the face of the American public. After Elvis died, Graceland and the trustees of Elvis' estate have made sure that Elvis' image is everywhere; after all, Graceland is a for-profit venture.

When we get to a point when Elvis is no longer in living memory, do you think he’ll still remain relevant to popular culture? For the exact reason you mentioned—that cult of personality—yes, I see Elvis moving into the future and continuing to appear as a point of reference in our pop culture.  

Elvis has his share of critics who will debate his merit as an artist.

In your opinion, what are Elvis’ contributions to the music industry? Elvis had the voice and the style that opened up African American music to white kids. Sure, but he also had a gutsy, feral sex appeal that the old crooners did not have.  Al Wertheimer, the photographer who shot that amazing body of work in 1956 (a Smithsonian traveling exhibition of Wertheimer's photographs is touring the country and will be on view at the Portrait Gallery this fall), said about Elvis, he made the girls cry. I really don't know how you measure making the girls cry in terms of artistic merit. There are stories of men like Paganini and Liszt—real virtuosi who could occupy a room with their talent and their personalities. Women loved these guys! I suspect that if such a thing existed as concert footage of either Paganini or Liszt in performance, we would see that sort of passion at work there also. Many of us are moved by art. We see an amazing work and we experience the resonance, as the old line goes, and we are moved. Opera, painting, theatre, dance—people are moved by those who are masters of their craft. Elvis' contribution, as a master of his craft—singing, dancing, entertaining—is measured in the number of people who have been and who are continued to be moved by his work.

Why do you think Elvis inspired the artists represented in this show? Different reasons, certainly. Visionary artists like Howard Finster loved Elvis' humble nature and devotion to Christianity; Elvis hated entitlement and loved his God. That appealed greatly to Finster, who was very religious and not formally trained as an artist. Other artists like Red Grooms and Robert Arneson saw the fun side of Elvis and worked with more humorous motifs. Ralph Wolfe Cowan’s portrait of Elvis is the young, idealized Hollywood Elvis; that is very much the way Elvis wanted to see himself in the years when Ralph originally drafted that work.  The inspiration for each of these men seems to come from many different places inside that mythic presence we call Elvis.

Is there a real Elvis inside this sequence of inspired works? Ralph Cowan’s work is probably the closest to a real Elvis image that we see on these walls, though Ralph’s work is very dramatic, and the backdrop for it, an almost post-apocalyptic Graceland, is quite unreal and fantastic, in the “fantasy” sense of the word fantastic.

Was there an Elvis object you would have loved to have for this show but were unable to get? The criteria we used to choose the works were fairly simple: one, the works needed to be from the period after Elvis’ death, and two, they needed to be tributary, or encomium-like.  This art is not representative of the body of art, in general, that features images of Elvis since his death.  Much of it is harsh, mean-spirited, and there is no shortage of simply vulgar works featuring Elvis. Those qualities do not necessarily stop the works from being good works of art; it is just that the negativity of these works greatly exceeded the artistic "isness," if I may borrow from the late Stephen Weil.  I am really, really happy with the works we have for this show.  We were able to borrow the amazing Robert Arneson piece from the Hirshhorn, two William Eggleston photos and the Donald Paterson allegory from SAAM, and we also augmented our two NPG portraits with works from the US Postal Service and the High Museum in Atlanta.  The show is small, but I think we have some nice, quality works and I like it that three of the Smithsonian art museums contributed from their respective collections.

One Life: Echoes of Elvis is at the National Portrait Gallery through August 29.

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