George W. Bush has been called a lot of unkind things, and now this: Who knew Picasso dwelled within the 43rd president of the United States?
The president whose troops nailed Saddam Hussein has joined Vladimir Putin, U.S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and Winston Churchill as heads of state with a credible claim to master of brush and palette.
Mr. Putin, who like George W. dabbles in painting dogs, once “managed” the sale of one of his paintings to a Russian oligarch for more than $1 million dollars. Jimmy Carter sold an original oil for $250,000 at a charity auction. “Managing” such sales sounds about right.
When a newspaper critic once asked Ike about the “symbolism” in his paintings, the conductor of D-Day and the Allied dash across Europe scowled and replied with a hint of contempt: “Let’s get something straight. They would have burned this [stuff] a long time ago if I weren’t the president of the United States.”
But George W.’s “stuff” is better than that. Some critics are saying so, taking pains to repeat the snark and splutter about the man whose shock and awe in Iraq and Afghanistan still makes certain liberals and “progressives” wet their pants.
“Oh, my God,” writes Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York magazine. “Pigs fly: I like something about George W. Bush. A lot. After spending more than a decade having almost physiological-chemical reactions anytime I saw him, getting the heebie-jeebies whenever he spoke … I really like the paintings of George W. Bush.”
Some of the portraits of world leaders he painted have gone on display at his presidential library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and they’re pretty good. They show insight and a penetrative understanding of the subjects. His portrait of Vladimir Putin, which is particularly incisive, accents the cold eyes and merciless countenance of the old KGB agent he once was. It’s as though the artist looked into the space where he expected to find the man’s soul, and this time found only space.
Alistair Sooke of London’s Daily Telegraph observes that the portrait of Mr. Putin, “who has been given a grimacing, squished muzzle and prominent rodent ears, [is set] against a purple background. There is something unconventional and compelling about this image.”
George W. ‘s work has even been assigned to an artistic category, suggesting that he has arrived, though no one is yet sure just where. “The paintings,” says The Daily Telegraph critic, “exhibit many of the hallmarks of so-called ‘outsider art’ — which, as visitors to last summer’s Venice Biennale will know, is very modish at the moment within the world of contemporary art.” (Well, yes, of course. We knew that.) He paints like he talks, “folksy, homespun, plain-speaking, with just enough ham-fisted strangeness and bungling missteps to keep things interesting.” This is how art critics write, but on the whole it’s a positive review, if not quite admiring.
Mr. Bush, unlike some former presidents, avoids brash political statements. He understands, as some former presidents do not, that his political insights are regarded as curiosities, with no particular weight. So his insights in oil are personal, not political, and more interesting for it.
He says the portraits were painted in a “spirit of friendship,” though some of his personal observations have the sharp edge that only a “former” feels unbound to say. “Vladimir is a person who in many ways views the U.S. as an enemy, although he wouldn’t say that.”
George W. is still smarting from the Russian president’s remarks about his beloved Scottish terrier, Barney. When Mr. Putin saw Barney at the White House, he waved him away with a snarl. “You call that a dog?” George W. later met the Putin dog, and describes it as a large, muscular hound. “Anybody who thinks ‘my dog is bigger than your dog’ is an interesting character.”
George W. has a few tips for aspiring painters. Painting world leaders is easy. Painting a wife or mother might not be.
“Don’t paint your wife,” he says. He’s proudest of the portrait of his father. “It was a joyful experience to paint him, a gentle soul,” he told his daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, the interviewer for NBC’s “Today.”
He was particularly reluctant to show his mother, Barbara Bush, that portrait. When he finally did, his mother asked, with maternal condescension: “That’s my husband?” She wasn’t thrilled to be on television, either. When the interview was over, she asked: “This is it? I got up at 4:30 in the morning for this?”