From World Leader to Painting Putin
When former President George W. Bush’s paintings were leaked to the Internet in February 2013, the Romanian calling himself “Guccifer,” who hacked Bush’s sister’s email account and found photos of the paintings, was arrested. Guccifer’s gift to the world prompted vast media coverage that very well could have been the impetus for Bush’s recent exhibition of portraits of world leaders.
Rather than ignore what was likely unwanted publicity, Bush took a different tack, embracing his new recognition as a fine artist. Subsequent to his outing as an amateur painter, he appeared on The Tonight Show and presented host Jay Leno with a portrait of Leno. Last month, The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy, an exhibition of Bush’s portraits of world leaders, was unveiled at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Houston, Texas. The oil-on-board portraits include those of German President Angela Merkel and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Reactions from popular media outlets were many and, perhaps surprisingly, somewhat varied.
Salon.com admitted that it would be easy to dismiss the paintings as work receiving attention only as a result of the creator’s celebrity, rather than skill. “Of course they’re terrible; Bush is an amateur painter, and very literal-minded,” wrote Douglas Lucas and Amy O’Neal, “but when you take the pictures on their own terms, they also reveal something more interesting about the former president. Bush has painted caricatures, intended to exaggerate the leaders’ personalities, not necessarily represent their likenesses.”
The writers noted that “Dubya” freely admits his paintings are not especially good. “They’re bad partly because he sees the leaders as a child would. He’s incapable, emotionally and technically, of finely observing them and conveying what they’re like independent of his own objectifications.” In other words, Bush engages his subjects without subtlety, wrote Lucas and O’Neal. “In these paintings, he’s saying, ‘This guy’s got a super-neat hat!’ … and so on.”
Former New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz said he “really likes” the self-portraits that were leaked last year of Bush in the bathtub and in the shower. Saltz’s Vulture article pointed out comments from a writer on Gawker who called the paintings “simple” and “awkward,” which they are, wrote Saltz, “but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways. They show someone doing the best he can with almost no natural gifts — except to do this.”
Saltz’s wife, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, delivered a send-up of Bush-as-artist laced with sarcasm so subtle as to make it seem as though her criticism might really be of the Times editor who sent her to cover the exhibition. “The paintings place the former president on the world stage, where everyone is acting. … I suspect that critics, art historians and presidential historians will be working through them for some time,” wrote Smith. “Perhaps the biggest surprise of the show — contrary to the common caricature of laziness during his years in the White House — is that Mr. Bush has taken to painting with something amounting to driven passion, and is working very hard at it.” Still, she noted that Bushian nonchalance is still represented. “The images seem legible and familiar, as if, as some have suggested, they were the first to pop up on Google.”
Oliver Milman pointed out in The Guardian that “Bush’s 30 oil paintings of world leaders appear to have been based upon casual searches of Google Images. …Rather than have his subjects sit for him or use printed photographs, Bush seems to have based his portraits on the first picture thrown up by the search engine.”
Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, remarked that “much like any non-torturing, war-starting retiree, George W. Bush has returned to public life with, like, 30 pictures he made.” Rather than nature paintings or other things retirees might paint, said Stewart, “Bush has gone with ‘other people I knew who ran countries.’” Stewart also quoted Saltz’s description of Bush’s art as “Innocent, sincere, earnest, almost child-like.” “That’s our man,” said Stewart, “our innocent, sincere, earnest, almost child-like two-term president.”
Conservative magazine National Review published the lone bit of positive criticism by Dallas art writer J.R. Compton. “Ignore the media,” he wrote “The former president has talent.” The “simmering” portrait of Jiang Zemin, President of the People’s Republic of China, shows “cool calculation,” wrote Compton. “Its nearly neutral forms don’t tell us much, but the tiny storm of expressionist brushwork in his complicated face fairly explodes.” Compton called the exhibition a complicated slice of history marking Bush’s presidency, but “the elaborate presentation is not an art exhibition.” Still, the portraits are, after all, paintings, and Compton admits that Bush is no expert, at least not yet. “The artist is learning his craft.”
In an interview at the exhibition’s opening with his daughter, Today correspondent Jenna Bush Hager, Bush seemed to have little to say about his technique or inspiration to start painting. One spark came from the time Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his dog was “bigger, stronger and faster than Barney,” Bush’s Scottish terrier. “I just took it in. I didn’t react,” Bush told his daughter. “Anybody who thinks, ‘My dog is bigger than your dog’ is an interesting character, and that painting kind of reflects that,” he said. The 43rd President of the United States began painting after he left office in 2009, but said he never expected to reach a place where he might have an exhibition, commenting, “Who woulda thunk it?”