Hard working art students and enthusiasts around the world are likely to cringe at the thought of former U.S. President and now amateur painter George W. Bush having a heavily media-covered exhibition of his latest paintings. Bush himself admits he is “not a great painter,” but people are, of course, not viewing his work to catch a glimpse of the world’s most skillful application of paint to canvas. Rather they want another look at the worldview of one of America’s most polarizing heads of state. Whether one sees him as a hero, a buffoon, a man of faith, a war criminal, or maybe just less than the ideal person to run the United States, his art is an intriguing piece of his otherwise exceptionally dull legacy that no one really could’ve expected.
The public exhibition of 24 painted portraits of world leaders, whom he knew while in office, is like nearly everything about George Bush—easily caricaturized. That’s at least how it seemed when W. humorously debuted some of his work on Jay Leno in 2013. Truly the more intriguing thing about the Bush paintings is not their failure to be renaissance quality works, but how their distortions actually seem to reveal a bit about how Bush perceived the people in his world while he was president.
His goal of “releasing his inner Rembrandt” by painting every day has at times, like his presidency, produced some goofy results. But for a man who began studying art and creating painted works in his sixties, they are fairly impressive at times. Also, much like his presidency, Bush either valiantly or ignorantly doesn’t fear looking stupid as he leaps head first into yet another world with which he is not familiar.
What’s perhaps the most fascinating, and maybe even a bit haunting, is how Bush captured the people closest to him compared to those who at times opposed him. His views appear at times simplistic, but also sentimental.
Blair: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush’s closest friend and ally in the international community, did much to damage his own public image at home in support of American and British military intervention in Iraq. Bush’s careful rendering of Blair presents him as a strong, diligent looking character, with a distinctly optimistic twinkle in his eye.
Sarkozy: Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in contrast, looks rather smug, and even a little bit uneasy. Sarkozy’s government was one of the most outspoken against military activity in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.
Merkel: Bush’s paintings are still far more than just war ally measuring sticks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an equally outspoken war critic, and not known for her cheeriness, is actually depicted as fairly sweet, if not a little lopsided.
Singh: India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears calm, if not a bit distant and calculating. The Bush administration made several visits so India and also shared a great deal of nuclear technology with the Indian government.
Putin: Bush’s rendering of Vladimir Putin is the painting that appears most distant of all. Putin looks resolute, but also somewhat intimidating. Not quite an adversary, but certainly a contender for power.
Bush Senior: Perhaps the most carefully done piece and W.’s personal favorite, the painting of his father, employs all of the painting skills that Bush can muster to capture an expressive and thoughtful rendition of the former president.
Many view Bush’s series of paintings emphasizing the personalities of world leaders as a criticism of Obama’s much more personally removed approach to diplomacy. Not to say that Obama doesn’t have personal relationships with other leaders, but it is certainly nothing on the scale of having a friend like Tony Blair. Many more still are critical of the fact that Bush paints at all. The paintings are perceived by a great deal of people as an endearing PR campaign designed to smooth over the rough edges of a presidency that started two wars, greatly expanded the national debt, responded abysmally to Hurricane Katrina, eroded constitutional rights, and promoted an incestuous relationship between church and state. And there is some merit to that. As one BBC reporter said, “Each new brushstroke seems to soften his personal image.”
If Bush’s paintings are indicative of anything, it’s that his legacy is far from decided. A century from now, long after the immediate status of our time’s fiscal issues, social concerns, and SNL skits are largely forgotten, it’s likely that Bush’s paintings will still be hanging in his presidential library. By that time the countries of Iraq and Afghanistan could very well be functional democracies. Whether you supported Bush or can’t stand the thought of him, it’s worth noting that much is being done to ensure that whatever a person’s view of Bush is, be it positive or negative, it’s likely to be based on things very different from what we think of today. As famously said by Winston Churchill, the world leader whose artistic hobbies inspired the late George Bush to take up painting in the first place, “History is written by the victors.” It’s worth remembering that they paint it too.