The artistry of George W. Bush

Reviewing the amateur paintings of former President George W. Bush isn’t the same as, say, reviewing the saxophone playing of Bill Clinton. The latter played his horn in public and invited us to respond not just to the spectacle of the President in his Elvis mode, but to the playing as well, which was never very good. Although Bush recently released an image of a painting he made of his recently deceased dog Barney, the two new works that came to light Thursday were almost certainly never intended for public consumption. Judging them is a bit like judging a pianist while practicing, alone, deliberately out of the public eye.


A painting by George W. Bush of his dog Barney, courtesy of the Bush family.

But they are out there now, and there’s not putting the paint back in the tube. Or rather, there’s no way that we can’t look through the window they seem to offer us into the psychology of someone who was once the most powerful man in the world. Not to look is to deny ourselves important material in our assessment not just of Bush, but of the inner life of politicians, especially those who submit to the extraordinary scrutiny and pressure of achieving and holding high office.

If that argument seems morally specious to you, as it might well to me if I weren’t a journalist, then read no further.

The two paintings, posted online, both show a man bathing. In one, the man’s face is visible in a small round shaving mirror, and the features are recognizably close to those seen in many cartoonist’s caricatures of Bush. In another, the man is in a bathtub. Only his legs are visible, the knees and toes poking up through the water, slowly rising as the tub fills. Neither painting is polished, yet both have some merit, not least of which is the challenge the painter has set himself: To render the body, or parts of the body, in situations that are intimately familiar to every viewer. Although the legs are somewhat crudely done, the bathtub painting manages to convey a tactile sense of the pleasure of bathing. The shower scene includes some risky games with the basic view of the body, showing us the back, and the face through the mirror, similar to a more complicated game  Magritte played in his 1937 “La reproduction interdite.”

It won’t be long until someone offers a partisan reading of the paintings, which might follow these lines: Both are about bathing, which may suggest some sense of guilt, like Lady Macbeth’s frantic hand washing in the Shakespeare play (“out damn spot…”). After eight years as supreme commander, making decisions in a time of war, perhaps Bush feels a need for some kind of spiritual or mental cleansing.

Both also show the president grappling with strong perspectival challenges. The shower image is marked by the rectilinear lines of the tile, which recall the grid pattern through which painters used to study and practice the rendering of three-dimensional space. The bathtub image uses perspective and foreshortening to render the legs stretching away from the viewer. But perspective is more than just a technique for representing space in three dimensions, it’s also a way of measuring the world, and by extension, these paintings seem to be about the president measuring his own body in relation to the world. The body of the king, for centuries, has been a metaphor for the state, and these paintings may be about the president, as a private citizen, taking his own measure during a complicated transition back to ordinary life.

But there’s no need to head straight to a partisan or over psychological interpretation. Only on first blush is it odd that both paintings show the president bathing. People who are constantly in the public eye, who live with cameras tracking their every move and recording their every word, find privacy only in the bath. It is where they think, unwind, and enjoy the rarest of luxuries: Alone time. If painting is a form of private relaxation, it’s not surprising that Bush would turn to himself in his most secluded sanctum as a subject. And given that the body is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, subject for art, it makes sense that he might paint his own (imagine the bad press if it were ever to be discovered that he had hired a model!).

He isn’t the first president to paint in his life outside the oval office. Eisenhower did too, rendering simple houses and pleasant landscapes. Winston Churchill wasn’t half bad as a water colorist. And in an earlier day and age, it would be surprising for a man of great accomplishment not to have tried his hand at drawing or watercolors.

It was a bit of a surprise, however, when Bush released his Barney painting and we learned that he taken up the art, and even bigger surprise that he has turned his attention to intimate self-portraits in the nude. In a way, it seems almost old fashioned, as if suddenly out of office Bush looked around, asked himself what do great men do with a lot of free time, and decided to follow a precedent from an earlier generation.

Perhaps because Bush always projected a self image of great force and confidence, it seems odd, at first, to see him explore another part of his psyche, more self exploratory and inward. But there is no contradiction in a man having public and private personas at odds with each other, and it is only a foolish prejudice that sees painting, or art of any sort, as somehow incompatible with political life.

Indeed, this might be the best thing that has happened to the arts in a long time. Suddenly, without our having had any inkling of it, we have an ex-President who is uniquely positioned to champion the arts. Rather than mock his endeavors, they should be welcomed.

(Editor’s Note: The Washington Post is not displaying the images discussed in this post. While the hack is newsworthy, Executive Editor Martin Baron said, “I don’t see a reason to display those photos. This is all private to the Bush family. There are no public policy implications here whatsoever.”)

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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