It was 1954, and the hitchhiker was carrying a guitar case when he approached the stranger’s car, saying he had run out of gas. The man let him in and the two talked about music as they drove to the gas station. Running out of money, the hitchhiker asked for a loan, and the stranger agreed before the hitchhiker took his name and address, promising to pay it back.
A month later, a large package arrived in the mail from the hitchhiker, containing a watch and a letter, which wrote that he would like the stranger to have a painting of his own. This painting of a cow in a meadow, the stranger noticed, was signed and inscribed by the hitchhiker – a young musician named Elvis Presley. Forty years later, the stranger registered the painting, still in his possession after all that time, with the US Copyright Office, writing in his statement of fact: “I think it’s time to show Elvis fans that ‘Elvis was a young artist as well as the animator.
“Part of this whole effort is to connect the 21st century audience to a 19th century artist. People can have a hard time relating to art from the past or be intimidated by museums, so it’s really about connecting those things and showing why the work is still popular in that case, why it’s still relevant. And music helps bridge that gap. — Fanny Curtat, art history consultant
Despite this stranger’s belief in the authenticity of his painting, in 2005 fine art appraiser and historian Janet Gwendolyn Smith determined that Elvis was not the artist, although an analysis of the writing authenticated his signature and dedication to his grandmother and mother. But after academic research and forensic examinations – including an X-ray, the thread count of the canvas and an ink analysis of the inscription, as well as a study of the original signature buried under this new signature – Smith attributed the painting to another icon: world-renowned post-Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh.
Since then, Smith has submitted the painting to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for authentication. “It takes 50 to 100 years to approve,” Smith says. “I may never see him [authenticated] In my life.”
“I’ll be honest with you,” she continues. “I don’t think Elvis knows who painted him. I think he just put his name on it because he wanted to make sure he was credited with owning it. … He had a very difficult childhood. I’m relatively certain he was trying to leave a legacy to [his family].”
Of course, we may never know why Elvis signed the painting, but we do know that this work of art, which never hung on the walls of Graceland, is not what gave rise to the name of Presley the legacy that Elvis yearned for. For now, we can believe that the painting may be part of another legacy, that of Vincent van Gogh. And from March 25and and through June 5, those legacies of Elvis and van Gogh will once again be intertwined as Graceland hosts “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.”
In one of his letters, van Gogh urged, “Find things beautiful as much as you can, most people find too unbeautiful.”
In this popular traveling exhibition, van Gogh’s work spills off the canvas as cutting-edge technology projects his paintings at a larger-than-life scale onto the walls and floors of the exhibition space. “The public literally sets foot there and becomes part of its vision of the world,” explains Fanny Curtat, art history consultant for the exhibition.
“This technology breathes new life into it,” Curtat continues, pointing to the animation that captures the movement already present in van Gogh’s line art and the use of complementary colors. “I think he would be comfortable using tools in a way that presents his vision, not just what he saw but really what we perceived, and in that sense, he’s was really about what he saw and didn’t see and what he felt.”
For van Gogh, painting was a form of communication. “We know he was very sensitive to color,” Curtat says. “He imbues them with power, and he gives them symbolic importance. … We know he thought about colors in a very meaningful way, and that’s one of the goals – to showcase that thirst for beauty that he put into his work. We tend to remember him for the darkness in his life and the incident that cut off his ears, but there’s so much more to him than that.
“For sure, he had a hard time – that’s for sure,” she continues. “But when you read his letters, he is very lucid. Sometimes there is this philosophical depth; at other times, he has this childlike wonder for the world. He’s all about bringing joy and solutions, and he’s known for all the hardships in his life that he’s managed to transcend into works of art and works of beauty. He could see the beauty of a bag of onions on a kitchen table or a pair of boots in the doorway.
In one of his letters, van Gogh urged, “Find things beautiful as much as you can, most people find too unbeautiful.” For an exhibit whose creation began in the middle of a pandemic, Curtat says, “It felt like a kind of good resonance point for what we were going through. He really felt like the artist we needed.
The exhibition begins with an introduction to the story of van Gogh, turning the mad artist’s narrative on its head and showing him as a more complex figure. After that, guests move through the gallery space, where the projections move from painting to painting, starting with his earlier, darker-toned works and moving on to his later, much brighter and more colorful. “We wanted to focus on light and joy,” says Curtat.
Some of this light and joy is conveyed by the soundtrack that plays throughout the exhibition. The music comes from different eras and different artists, but the pieces have a sense of lightness, a warmth that welcomes the viewer into van Gogh’s work. “For me, it’s really the fantasy of getting into the paintings that I know and love,” Curtat says. 19th century People can find it hard to relate to art from the past or be intimidated by museums, so it’s really about connecting those things and showing why the work is still popular in this case, why it’s still relevant, and music helps bridge that gap.
By bridging this gap, Curtat explains, the exhibition promotes the timeliness and current relevance of van Gogh’s work. “It’s a testament to the power of his work and the fact that people resonate with him,” adds Curtat.
With that in mind, it seems more than a coincidence that van Gogh’s work is now at Graceland, where more than 500,000 visitors come each year to be a part of Elvis’ world. And perhaps this exhibit will encourage you, the next time (or the first time) you visit Graceland, to examine Elvis as more than a legend, a character, but as an artist who has shaped a legacy and a message that has persevered over the decades. . After all, as Van Gogh once wrote, “I don’t know if you will understand that one can speak of poetry simply by arranging the colors well, just as one can say comforting things in music.”
“Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” will be on view at the Graceland Exhibition Center, 3171 Elvis Presley Blvd., through June 5. Tickets can be purchased at vangoghmemphis.com.