It isn’t really about the paintings, which even former President George W. Bush honestly acknowledges are amateur efforts. Rather, it’s about the fact that he paints, and what this adds to our sense of his character. On NBC’s Today Show this morning, Bush joked that everyone was surprised to learn he had picked up a brush. “I’m sure when they heard I was painting, and if they had, they’re going to say, ‘Wow, I look forward to seeing a stick figure he painted of me,’” Bush said during a segment hosted by his daughter Jenna Bush Hager. The two spent time touring an exhibition of Bush’s recent work, portraits of world leaders, installed at the George W. Bush presidential library in Dallas.
Although the first Bush paintings came to light when family email accounts were hacked last year, Bush is now freely showing his work, offering it up as potential insight into his relationship with important international figures. Given that Bush’s leadership always seemed premised on instinct, hunches and gut feelings, his paintings will naturally be scrutinized for physical evidence of those intuitions. But he’s not quite accomplished enough as an artist to offer much on that front.
The NBC segment provided only brief glimpses of the most recent work. A painting of Vladimir Putin was, not surprisingly, flinty eyed with a hard, piercing stare. Afghan president Hamid Karzai was recognizable mainly by his signature beard. Tony Blair was identifiable by his hairline. Bush’s characterizations, at this point, are defined by a few, basic, easily identified features, the sort of things a street caricaturist would seize upon and exaggerate.
Painting also lets Bush indulge one of his most charming traits, his gift for self-deprecation. He realizes these aren’t great paintings, but he is determined to get better. He is the earnest schoolboy, determined to improve. Art is also a comfortable topic for people who are inclined to be inarticulate. Bush’s natural disinclination to deep psychologizing makes art a strangely appropriate form of reticent self-revelation. He just puts it out there; history will decide.
Of course, there will always be reflexive and diametrically opposed cultural responses to any figure as deeply polarizing as Bush. Those inclined to like him will see a modest man improving himself during retirement. Those inclined to loath him will see something weirdly infantile and indulgent in his daubing, especially if compared with the post-Presidential careers of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
And in 20 years, when passions fade? Very likely this will all be a few more data points confirming the emerging consensus that, love him or hate him, George W. Bush was one of our weirdest, most inscrutable and unlikely leaders.