GUY RAZ, host:
Now, another museum here in Washington is celebrating an experience of a different kind - the Elvis experience.
(Soundbite of song, "Hound Dog")
Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer): (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time...
RAZ: Yesterday would've been the king's 75th birthday. And to celebrate, we walked down to the National Portrait Gallery, which just unveiled an exhibit of fine art called "One Life: Echoes of Elvis."
Mr. WARREN PERRY (Exhibit Curator, "One Life: Echoes of Elvis"): If you look around the room, I think you'll see a lot of images by some really great artists of the 20th century. We have Howard Finster represented here, Robert Arneson, William Eggleston, and the most prolific painter of royalty and reigning heads of state of all time, Ralph Wolfe Cowan is also represented in this gallery.
RAZ: Let's look at that portrait by Ralph Wolfe Cowan. And this is the only portrait that Elvis ever sat for.
Mr. PERRY: It's fantastic. First of all, that's a Graceland that you'll never see. The ground in front of the portrait is almost desolate-looking. It looks like Tara after the invasion of Georgia. It's very dramatic. And Ralph uses these bold colors. You see that steel blue in the sky and then you see the sunset. And then you see that red shirt that Elvis is wearing. And Elvis just pops almost out of that shirt. It's a very stunning good-looking Elvis that Ralph features in this image.
RAZ: Oftentimes, when - I think when people hear the term Elvis and art, they think of Elvis as sort of the tacky art. But I mean, here we're surrounded by some of these great iconic American artists. I want to ask you about the Howard Finster pieces. What was he doing in this piece here? What was he trying to portray?
Mr. PERRY: It's an interesting image of Elvis with the wings of an angel coming off of him. But it's not the adult Elvis, it's not the young Elvis, it's the very, very young Elvis - it's the baby Elvis in a set of overalls and a large hat. And Finster, I think, is trying to insinuate Elvis in this pantheon of very, very blessed men. Finster saw Elvis as something of an emissary of God, as a messenger, if you will.
RAZ: I mean, you look around this room and it's so clear in almost every single one of this pieces it's almost as if Elvis is divine or as in this sculpture here, this bust, as Julius Caesar.
Mr. PERRY: There are a lot of pieces that place Elvis out of the earthly orbit in this room, and certainly, the artisan piece of Elvis as Caesar is one of them. It's very much larger than Elvis, larger than life. You've got the guitar crest emblazoned across the armor in the front. And then you've got - if you look closely - titles of Elvis's songs stamped into the pedestal.
RAZ: Now, I'm looking at this bust in Elvis as Julius Caesar. We know that Julius Caesar was one of the great Roman emperors - not necessarily the greatest, but certainly the best known, the one that people remember when they think of the Roman emperors. You could probably say the same thing about Elvis. I mean, he wasn't necessarily the greatest performer or artist in American history but the best known. I mean, he was the king.
Mr. PERRY: I think time will certainly tell if he's the greatest with respect to numbers, but I wouldn't want to pick a fight with an Elvis fan about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: What do you think it was about him? I mean, was it his appearance? Was it his music? Was it his charisma? Or is it something that just isn't possible to know?
Mr. PERRY: Elvis had that something, that undefinable something. You got to admit, the guy was a great-looking guy. The fact that he could sing as well as he did certainly enhances all of this, as well as he was fun. You don't hear a lot of mean stuff about Elvis. You hear stories of practical jokes and you see him teasing the audiences in his shows and you see him having a good time.
There's also this: when it came time for Elvis to go into the Army, like so many other Americans, he went into the Army. And that brought him into the mainstream. But prior to that, he we liked because he was a rebel. He - really, he set the pattern for the rock and roll generation in many ways.
(Soundbite of song, "Rip It Up")
Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, it's Saturday night and I just got paid...
RAZ: Warren Perry is the curator of the "Echoes of Elvis" exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington, D.C. The exhibit continues through August. And you can see portraits of Elvis and listen to some of his greatest hits at our Web site, that's NPR.org.
(Soundbite of song, "Rip It Up")
Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) I'm gonna rip it up, and ball tonight. Well, I got me a date and I won't be late. I picked her up in my '88.' Shag on down by the social hall when the joint starts jumping I'll have a ball.
RAZ: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great night.
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