It is possible that Elvis may be more famous in death than in life.
Elvis’s performance career lasted slightly under twenty-three years. After his death on August 16, 1977, writer and Elvis biographer Bobbie Ann Mason said, “It seemed inconceivable that Elvis—just forty-two years old—was gone.” Although Elvis left the world behind on that day, the world refused to let go of Elvis.
Within hours after his death, Elvis’s picture flashed across all forms of media. The shock wave was absorbed by a stunned public that soon found itself in sympathy with the young man from Tupelo, Mississippi, who had made the journey from poverty to wealth, from obscurity to notoriety, and from fame to icon.
The post-Elvis fascination first manifested itself in the form of sympathetic and not-so-sympathetic biographies. Since 1977 the canon of printed literature invoking the name of Elvis has grown larger yearly, including scholarly contributions like Erika Doss’s Elvis Culture (1999), philosophical works such as David Rosen’s The Tao of Elvis (2002), and a surfeit of non-academic books like Brenda Butler’s Are You Hungry Tonight? (1992). Films about Elvis appeared as early as 1979 (Elvis: The Movie), and later films such as the haunting Mystery Train (1989) and the conspiratorial Bubbahotep (2002) feature dark and fantastic Elvis portrayals.
The world of visual art also became a repository for images of Elvis after his death—tributary, allegorical, and satirical. Today, Elvis is the subject of works by artists from every part of the earth and in every form and medium possible. His face is no longer the face of the man who sang, danced, and played the good guy on the silver screen; rather, it is the face of an icon whose metamorphic character echoes the views and passions of the artists who portray him.Elvis as Caesar is Robert Arneson’s variation on Elvis as King of Rock and Roll. Arneson’s monumental ceramic encomium is a sly tribute to Elvis’s place at the pinnacle of twentieth-century entertainment. Satire, caricature, and exaggeration are all part of Arneson’s portraiture. His early work as a cartoonist is evident in his irreverent ceramic sculptures; they are often visual puns full of political and social commentary. Arneson deliberately pushed artistic boundaries by rejecting traditional decorative or functional work in clay to create boldly expressive sculptures that could shock and amuse his audiences.
Robert Arneson received his MFA from Mills College in 1958 and taught at the University of California at Davis from 1962 until just before his death in 1992.
- Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery
Warren Perry, curator of the "One Life: Echoes of Elvis" exhibition, recently discussed Robert Arneson's portrait of Elvis Presley at a Face-to-Face portrait talk.
Listen to Warren Perry's Face-to-Face talk on Elvis Presley (19:01)
Face-to-Face occurs every Thursday evening at the National Portrait Gallery. The next Face-to-Face talk is this Thursday, January 28, when Denise Wamaling of the Smithsonian American Art Museum speaks about the portrait Elvis Presley by William Eggleston. The talk runs from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. Visitors meet the presenter in the museum’s F Street lobby and then walk to the appropriate gallery.
Elvis Aron Presley / Robert Arneson / Glazed Ceramic, 1979 / Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Sydney and Frances Lewis Foundation, 1985 / Art © Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY