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“Her Music, It Had a Message”: Visitors Remember Aretha Franklin at DC Museum

Through Wednesday, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC is displaying a lithographic poster of Franklin by famed graphic designer Milton Glaser.

Aretha Franklin with her Milton Glaser portrait (image courtesy Angela Pham BFA)

WASHINGTON, DC — In a country as large as the United States, there’s no way for all those mourning the recent death of beloved “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin to come together. But the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, has offered one spot to pay tribute: Through Wednesday, it’s displaying a lithographic poster of Franklin by famed graphic designer Milton Glaser in its In Memoriam space.

It’s an honor the museum has conferred on only a handful of public figures after their deaths, starting in the last half-decade or so. They include Americans renowned in the fields of arts and sports — such as Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, and Prince, as well as former first ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush.

“We realized there is no place like a town square, where people can gather and everybody share in an emotion. This has sort of become that,” said curator Robyn Asleson. “We don’t [do In Memoriam portraits] with great frequency, so we consider it quite an honor to be recognized in that way — but there was no question that she would be one.”

Milton Glaser, “Aretha Franklin” (1968), color photolithographic poster, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (© Milton Glaser)

While most of the In Memoriam works have been representational photographs, the image of Franklin is not a traditional likeness. In a bold, Pop-art style and vibrant purple, red, and blue colors, Glaser strikingly captures not only the singer’s appearance but also her larger-than-life persona, showing Franklin mid-song, with “Aretha” spelled out in block letters underneath.

The poster was published as a pullout insert in the November 1968 issue of Eye magazine, a short-lived pop culture publication geared to youth, and represents a moment when both Franklin and Glaser’s careers were on the rise. Franklin had released her chart-topping version of “Respect” the previous year and had numerous hits in the late ’60s; Glaser had created his iconic psychedelic Bob Dylan poster in 1966 and would go on to design the famous “I ❤ NY” logo in the coming decade.

There were lines out the door last Friday, the day the poster went on view. Crowds were smaller but steady over the weekend, and staff said a large proportion of visitors had come specifically for the Franklin portrait. (It’s up for just six days due to the sensitivity of works on paper, and because the museum also showed it throughout 2015, when it recognized Franklin with its Portrait of a Nation Prize, which honors “notable contemporary Americans” whose portraits are part of the museum’s collection.)

“We were listening to her music in Kansas City when she was just 18, before she was famous,” said a middle-aged woman who had made a special trip to the Portrait Gallery with three friends. “She’s the greatest female singer of all time.”

Visitors taking pictures of Milton Glaser’s “Aretha Franklin” at the National Portrait Gallery in DC (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Admirers spanned all ages, genders, and backgrounds, though skewing heavily toward older black women. Many took photos and selfies and reminisced on what the singer meant to them. Two complete strangers scrolled through cellphone playlists to share their favorite songs with each other.

“She left a legacy. And her music, it had a message,” said a woman named Hilda, who proudly noted that she had seen Franklin perform live at Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration.

Later, a group of older African American women, who had come down to DC on a weekend bus tour from Pittsburg for a crab festival, stopped by the Portrait Gallery on a sort of pilgrimage — to see Franklin and the paintings of the Obamas.

A DC-area flight attendant who identified herself as Miss Peggy recalled listening to her favorite Aretha song, “Sweet Bitter Love,” on vinyl over and over when it came out in the ’60s. “I remember sitting with my neighbor; we listened to that record, picked the needle up, put it back down, listened again, picked the needle up, put it back down.”

Some didn’t fail to notice that hanging almost directly across from Franklin is a portrait of another black American woman who has become “immortal”: Henrietta Lacks, whose cell line was taken without her consent prior to her 1951 death from cervical cancer, and continues to be used in medical research.

The painting of Lacks is by artist Kadir Nelson — who, within just 24 hours of Franklin’s death last week, was commissioned to draw a tribute to the singer for the cover of the forthcoming issue of The New Yorker.

Aretha Franklin performs at the American Portrait Gala (image courtesy Angela Pham BFA)

Like Glaser’s poster, Nelson’s expressive pencil line drawing for The New Yorker grasps the essence of Franklin, showing her gloriously singing, her mouth open, head thrown back. It also reveals a truth that hasn’t changed in 50 years: Artists can ably depict the “Queen of Soul” on paper, but nothing but a recording can capture that incomparable voice.

Milton Glaser’s “Aretha Franklin” poster will remain on view at the National Portrait Gallery (8th St NW & F St NW, Washington, DC) through Wednesday, August 22.

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