The Artist

08.03.12

Paul Bremer’s New Canvas: Bush’s Iraq Boss Embraces Artistic Side

He’s best known for managing the messy aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Now the former wartime chief is being noted for his new landscapes—of the oil variety.

Landscape painter L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer III prefers working in oils to watercolors.

“Watercolors are more difficult,” he says. “You can’t go back and paint over a mistake like you can in oils.”

In other words, Bremer’s much-second-guessed exertions in Iraq were more like oil painting than watercolors?

“I guess so,” he agrees with a laugh. For 13 months after the U.S. invasion, Bremer was essentially running the disorderly country as George W. Bush’s administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, aka Iraq’s “American proconsul.” It wasn’t pretty—indeed a bit of a mess, as amply chronicled in numerous books and documentaries—and Bremer departed earlier than expected.

It’s not exactly news that since then he has been following in the brushstrokes of other power players-turned-artistes, ranging from Winston Churchill to Ted Kennedy to Donald Regan—President Reagan’s hapless second-term chief of staff. A certain universally reviled German chancellor also liked to paint—but that was before he tried his hand at world domination.

In the current instance, Foreign Policy magazine’s Passport blog has just rediscovered Bremer’s oeuvre in an uncomplimentary post calling his paintings “sad” and listing his alleged failures in office: his “dismantling of the Iraqi army, the ‘de-Ba’athification’ of Iraq’s government, some questionable financial decisions involving hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi money, and the scandal over prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.”

Adding injury to insult, the blog erroneously accuses Bremer of being a “watercolorist.” Nope (see above).

The 70-year-old retired diplomat—who left Baghdad’s Green Zone in June 2004 and these days divides his time between Chevy Chase, Md., and Chester, Vt.—has been painting bucolic New England landscapes for the past five years, having taken lessons at the Yellow Barn Studio in Glen Echo, Md. Peter Jeziorski, who runs the Hunter Artworks Gallery in nearby Vermont town of Grafton, where Bremer staged a show a few years ago, calls the former ambassador “talented.”

“I don’t pretend to be a serious artist in the sense of bringing the kind of discipline to make your own paints and stretch your own canvas. I let somebody else do that,” Bremer says. “I don’t prepare the canvas with gesso [a priming mixture of chalk, gypsum, and white pigment that causes the oil paint to adhere]. The canvasses I use have already been gessoed.”

Bremer says he paints in a style best described as “American impressionist—primitive.”

“My favorite painter is probably Cezanne,” he says. “I like bright colors, strong primary colors. I think of Monet and Matisse and to a lesser extent Cezanne. I’m very attracted to the brightness of the colors in Vermont, and I particularly like to paint in the winter, when there is a stark contrast in the sky, and then you get the snow and a red barn and a birch tree. Wonderful colors!”

Bremer adds: “What I am really working on now is to try to learn about the brushstrokes and how they apply the paint. I’m trying to ‘loosen my wrists,’ in painterly terms. My paintings are still rather tight ... It’s very relaxing in a way, but it’s also sort of like golf—it’s humiliating. It’s basically something where you work out that this is the best I can do. It’s character-building.”

Bremer, by the way, is a severe critic of President Obama’s foreign policy—particularly the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, and, eventually, Afghanistan—and predicts that Obama’s program of sanctions will do little to prevent a nuclear Iran.

“I’m a registered Republican,” he says. “I know Romney, whom I met in 2006, and I will certainly be for him. Maybe I can stuff envelopes.”

What about advising Mitt Romney on international relations?

“I haven’t been asked,” Bremer says.

As for Iraq—where civilians continue to die in substantial numbers via suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks—Bremer sounds an optimistic note, even though some 200 Iraqis were killed in just the past month.

“That’s al Qaeda—that’s a different problem than the problem of insurgency,” Bremer insists, pointing out that Iraq has held five democratic elections since the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein. “The Iraqis are a very resilient people—very resilient.”

“It’s basically something where you work out that this is the best I can do. It’s character-building.”

Would Bremer like to return for a visit?

“I would love some day to go back,” he says. “Certainly—when Iraq has become more peaceful and settled down.”

And what a landscape that would be.