G.W. Bush’s painterly ambitions were exposed to the world last year when hacker Guccifer released images of “bathing” self-portraits, pet portraits and landscapes taken from the former president’s emails. It wasn’t long before G.W. opened up about his retirement hobby to Jay Leno, presenting the cartoonish-looking host of the Tonight Show with his very own autographed portrait. Now, Bush is sharing his portfolio with the public in an exhibition titled The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy, which opens in April in his presidential library in Dallas. According to the Bush Foundation, the exhibit “will feature more than two dozen never-before-exhibited portraits” by the former president (here’s hoping this includes more introspective shower scenes). In honor of the news, let’s revisit G.W.’s leaked masterpieces.
The WASP’s Landscape
Of course George W. Bush uses his weight room as a studio! In this picture of a picture, leaked along with a trove of family correspondence and photos, we see Dubya in his element. Wearing his down-home khaki shorts, a baseball cap, and a vest, he’s surrounded by mirrors so he can watch himself putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece: a painting of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Kennebunkport, Maine, the WASP-y seaside town where Bush spent many childhood summers.
It seems that Bush is simply taking a stab at landscapes and ecclesiastical architecture. But New York’s art critic Jerry Saltz saw something else in the painting. “The architecture strikes me as real and imagined: a small central home with maybe an addition, and a large round silo. There appear to be two crosses atop this overall structure, one on the main house and a larger one on the silo. American Gothic indeed.”
As much as we’d all love to think that our very own W. was imagining his home with two large crosses over it (the religious introspection!), unfortunately Saltz really overanalyzed this one, though he deserves props for his own imaginative interpretation.
The critic goes on: “The purity of the lone American farmer. Individuality. No neighbors in sight. Alone on one’s own land. It is the isolation of rural America writ in bricks and mortar. Clearly this is not a poor person’s home. The yard is well kept. Two benches allow contemplation of this secret garden. It’s part Grandma Moses, part Thomas Kinkade, part the dry, flickering, detailed brushwork of contemporary artist Ellen Altfest.”
What about Edward Hopper? Doesn’t he deserve a mention?
The Frat Boy
While other critics think the steamy shower self-portrait is more than meets the eye, Saltz points out an all-too-plausible interpretation: here’s the “frat boy” we (and he) know all too well, a “perverse” W. looking at himself in the mirror as he lathers up with soap, perhaps in the midst of a little rub and tug. We won’t get too carried away, but come on, George, are we really supposed to believe that your muscles are that big? As Saltz writes, it’s “as if the unreal has become a companion to the painter.”
The third picture of Bush in the bathtub is, in critic Hrag Vartanian's opinion “a dull painting.” Vartanian dashes off a bit of a backhanded compliment as he observes that the image “reminds me of Frida Kahlo’s famous 1938 painting What I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me, but without all the symbolism or richness.”
But Saltz calls it “the strangest, and the strongest” of the three. It shows Bush looking down at his toes as the water runs into the bath. “This means we’ve already seen two images of him cleansing himself, in warm water,” Saltz notes. “It’s already enough to set you off on fantasies of aloofness, aloneness, exile, and hiding.”
“Bush regards himself,” Saltz writes. “Yet nothing untoward is showing or seen. He is chaste and untouched even when alone. We see his knobby knees and his toes peeking up above the running water.”
He is at once a child and an old man, innocent and guilty. One imagines him at ease in the bathtub, perhaps recalling distant memories of being bathed by his mother. Or is he exposing himself in a moment of darkness, as he contemplates slipping beneath the water’s surface, his last gasp before an eternal sleep?
Or maybe he’s just obsessing over his pruning toes.
The Idiot Savant
Gawker’s curt description of Bush’s paintings as “awkward and simple” was not particularly generous. But let’s be honest: they are amateur at best. But that’s not to say there’s not room for improvement. After all, Bush only recently picked up the hobby, according to Joe Hagan’s profile of the family in New York last October. Bush’s favorite subjects at the time were allegedly “portraits of dogs and arid Texas.” Now he’s doing self-portraits ... in the buff! So one could say he’s come a long way from painting labrador retrievers.
But Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian calls the works “technically shoddy,” pointing out the “impossible reflection in the shower mirror, for starters, or the perspective on the bathtub, which must be the longest and narrowest in existence.”
New York writer Dan Amira agrees that the painting’s aesthetic quality is none too impressive, but that perhaps Bush’s self-portraits reveal a former president doing some serious soul-searching in the (almost) twilight of his life. Amira sees Bush “staring off into the corner of the shower, as if contemplating past sins that can never be washed away, no matter how much soap you use and how hard you scrub.”
He imagines Bush’s religious subconscious speaking to him, inspiring him to paint and looking at him “like a haunting apparition. You can’t hide from yourself, the face is saying. You can’t hide from God.”
But perhaps Burkeman puts it best: “ As an amateur painter, we should avoid misunderestimating him.”