DALLAS — Former President George W. Bush is a something of a natural when it comes to making oil paintings, a decent amateur. Although he picked up a brush only in 2012, this naturalness emerged as a definite possibility barely a year later. That’s when images of two strange, seemingly introspective paintings by Bush went viral, hacked from the email of a Bush relative, very discreetly showing the former president bathing.
Now Bush’s unsettling talent is confirmed by “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy,” a hagiographic soup of an exhibition that opened Saturday at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University, and includes — amid quite a bit else — 30 of the former president’s oil-on-board paintings of world leaders. The exhibition starts with a presidential self-portrait that seems still to need work and a far more affecting depiction of his aging father, former President George H.W. Bush.
These are followed by heads of state like Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, looking suitably stony faced and ruthless. There are portraits of Tony Blair of Britain and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that resemble paintings by Luc Tuymans (a well-known Belgian artist who, like Bush, works from photographs) and of Angela Merkel of Germany looking open and optimistic (and girlishly nonthreatening). President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is depicted uncharacteristically concerned. Ehud Olmert of Israel appears to be reading from a speech — an appealing work that can bring to mind a self-portrait by another, visionary amateur painter, the composer Arnold Schoenberg.
Bush has an uncanny ability to translate photographs into more awkward images enlivened by distortions and slightly ham-handed brushwork. His skill may be disconcerting for people who love painting and dislike the former president, but still, everyone needs to get a grip, especially those in the art world who dismiss the paintings without even seeing them.
If Bush’s portrait of Putin were an anonymous find in a thrift shop, most of us would happily snap it up. That these works are by Bush makes them more complicated, and useful as another lens with which to examine the personality and legacy of a man who may remain the greatest known unknown of his own presidency. They mostly confirm the version of Bush we are familiar with: a man who is extremely comfortable in his own skin, who is seemingly open and charming but also closed and opaque. And don’t forget slyly self-deprecating.
When asked about the bathing paintings in interviews ramping up to the exhibition, Bush distanced himself from them— and indirectly ridiculed anyone who took them seriously — by saying that he had only painted them to shock his teacher, the noted Dallas painter Gail Norfleet.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the show - contrary to the common caricature of laziness during his years in the White House - is that Bush has taken to painting with something amounting to driven passion, and is working very hard at it. Still Bushian nonchalance is not completely absent. The images seem legible and familiar, as if, as some have suggested, they were the first to pop up on Google.
But this show is about much more than Bush’s art. Nearly every painting is flanked as closely as Secret Service agents by big color photographs of the former president greeting, meeting and hanging out with its subject and also barricaded behind big vitrines holding often lavish official gifts. Putin presented Bush with watercolors of all U.S. presidents bound in bejeweled velvet that suggest bad Fabergé. From the Dalai Lama, he received a traditional Tibetan white greeting scarf and from Merkel a multitiered Christmas crèche. All this gives people uninterested in the paintings plenty else to look at, even if it’s standard presidential-library fare.
In the end, these works remain very much on the surface, in character perhaps with Bush and his presidency. That may paradoxically say more about art than about Bush. They remind us of art’s insidious function as evidence and of its almost inevitable tendency to tell at least some of the truth, if not the whole truth.
I suspect that critics, art historians and presidential historians will be working through them for some time.
‘The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy,’ continues through June 3 at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, Dallas; 214-346-1650; georgewbushlibrary.smu.edu.