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The Artist Formerly Known as President

Arts & Culture | April 22, 2014

The imperious portraits stare ahead with slightly uneven eyes. Art critics across the country have dubbed the works “awkward” while simultaneously “earnest.” The collection of 30 oil paintings in the new exhibit are not quite “high art,” but they are oddly revealing and almost uncomfortably human. The paintings are not perfect depictions of their subjects, but they do seem to illustrate quite a bit about their creator, former president George W. Bush.

The world learned of the W’s new hobby two years ago when a slew of artwork was posted online after his family’s email was hacked. Among the leaked collection were several paintings of Bush’s pets, as well as some landscapes. But most shocking were two self-portraits of the president bathing: one shows Bush’s bare upper back in the shower, with his eyes reflected in a small hand mirror; the other shows the former leader’s bare legs submerged in a tub, his feet poking out at the end. In all the photos it is clear what is supposed to be depicted, but there always seems to be something off. A lack of depth maybe, or an impossible amount of stillness.

In a recent interview on NBC conducted by his daughter Jenna, Bush expressed some remorse. Said Bush, “…And nor do I want my paintings to get out. And I found it very interesting the first painting that came out was the one I painted of myself in the bathtub. I did so because I wanted to kind of shock my instructor.”

Bush’s painting instructor was Gail Norfleet, a painter from Dallas who seems to have a similar style to Mr. Bush in both color and in the way her brush strokes are visible on the paper. Bush began taking painting lessons after reading Winston Churchill’s essay “Painting as a Pastime,” which had been suggested to him by Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis.

Later last year, Bush made an appearance on NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno. When asked about his new hobby, Bush confidently asserted, “I am a painter.” He went on to explain, “I do take painting seriously, it’s changed my life,” before presenting the Tonight Show host with a portrait of his face—famous chin and all.

But today Bush has shaken off his coyness, and has taken on new artistic challenges. “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy,” a new exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, features portraits of world leaders that Bush encountered during his time as President of the United States. There is also a painting of the president himself, clothed in the usual suit and tie, as well as one of his father. In a video that plays on continuous loop at the exhibit, Bush explains, “I spent a lot of time on personal diplomacy and I befriended leaders. I learned about their families and their likes and dislikes, to the point where I felt comfortable painting them.”

The topic has played out across all media, with news hosts and writers alike gently jibing the president for his skills or lack thereof. There has been some controversy over the accusation that Bush used the top Google image of each world leader as the basis for his paintings. And though it appears that Bush heavily employed the “image search” feature, accusations of laziness or copyright infringement seem a bit desperate.

What is in fact the most interesting about Bush’s new hobby is that it seems to have consumed the rhetoric concerning the president himself. One of the top four searches on Google when searching Bush’s name is “george w bush paintings.” This is the president who ended his term with an approval rating of 34%. In 2009 Bush was widely hated—seen as responsible for an economic crisis, not to mention a trillion-dollar war that at that point had lasted for over eight years. But today in his retirement, Bush is best known for a painting of Putin that is more or less accurate, though the leader looks slightly jaundiced. Is it possible that this could change Bush’s legacy? Will history books be gentler on the amateur painter who was once a president than they would have been on a detested world leader?

The most recently retired presidents provide no clear answer to this question. While Bill Clinton’s legacy is still clearly marred by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and ensuing impeachment, it is clear Clinton’s various diplomatic missions to Haiti and North Korea, as well as his support of his wife Hilary, have helped his public image. Bush Senior is now discussed largely in connection with his age, and seems to have lost his reputation as an out-of-touch prep school boy.  But no former president seems to have been able to make the complete 360-degree change that the younger Bush has.

The amnesia regarding Bush’s presidency is especially startling considering the exhibit of paintings features the people Bush met in his capacity as president. And yet, the focus in recent news coverage has not been on Bush’s relationship with these leaders but rather on the giant, tangible brushstrokes. The New York Times mentioned that perhaps the portrait of Putin is so cold because of the tense relationship between the two leaders, but there was no larger extrapolation. It raises the question as to whether the “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy” exhibit is merely a very odd publicity stunt. Perhaps W. has decided it is better to be seen as a vaguely ridiculous art hack rather than the leader that initiated two wars and was at one point the most unpopular president to date. O