Critics have blasted George W. Bush’s portraits as “amateur, very literal-minded” and “like a freshman art student attempting alla prima,” but it is not clear how much of this opinion free-for-all draws on in-person experience of the artworks at the Bush Presidential Library in Dallas and how much is based on mediocre photos and rampant ignorance.
Certainly, some of the former president’s freshman efforts are not notable, but more are remarkable, and a few outstanding. Bush’s portrait of Vladimir Putin is stunning, fierce and deeply revealing. It exposes its subject’s realities, as successful portraits do.
Other paintings show person and personality while rendering sufficient visual information about who these leaders are.
Bush’s portrait of French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy renders deeply expressive concerns and dismay. His painting of former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf crowds the frame with expansive power. And Bush’s Silvio Berlusconi gushes with slick charm.
The simmering portrait of Jiang Zemin, President of the People’s Republic of China, shows cool calculation. Its nearly neutral forms don’t tell us much, but the tiny storm of expressionist brushwork in his complicated face fairly explodes.
Despite the paintings’ merit, the show is not about art. It is a complicated slice of history marketing Bush’s presidency and his theory of “Personal Diplomacy,” and the portraits have but a small part.
Stirring music blares, and interviews play as visitors recycle through the dark space. I kept hearing Bush calling himself “an old dog learning new tricks.” And it all kept repeating.
The elaborate presentation is not an art exhibition, and it does few favors for Bush’s art, cluttering the space with what the center calls “artifacts, photographs, and personal reflections to help illustrate the stories of relationships formed on the world stage.” The paintings are hung high over that.
Thus the viewer must observe the art over big glass cabinets heaped with exquisite gifts from countries whose leaders are portrayed. The smallish paintings themselves are surrounded by a busy hodgepodge of photos of the leaders laughing and talking.
The display makes enjoying the oils on canvas into a tiresome challenge, and it makes it harder for photographers to do justice to them. Taking photographs of art hung on dark walls too easily renders the works overexposed and washed out, blotting out Bush’s careful colors, brushstrokes and tonalities in images. I had assumed Bush’s own presidential center in his current hometown would treat his fine art debut with grace.
This is too bad, because the paintings are full of careful subtleties and expressionistic riffs. Without dates on the art, we cannot follow the arc of the artist’s still-short trajectory. George W. Bush has only been painting since 2012 — first dogs, now people. But he’s been attentive and is learning fast.