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.
Like most contemporary artists, Bush uses photography extensively in his work, but he has professional sources, many of whose images have since filtered to the Internet.
Bush’s portrait of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is probably his most egregious less-than-remarkable piece. The photo the painting was based on is just to its right, and in both we see what photographers call a “between-expressions expression.”
Olmert’s face is between smiling and whatever comes next, and Bush is still laughing. But the painter must have liked that photo. Olmert’s painted eyes and forehead are vivid and real, and his ears are among Bush’s best, but the mouth and chin look clownish.
Bush’s portraits usually employ plain color backgrounds with soft streaks that vaguely outline the heads of the heads of state. The background in the portrait of Rawanda President Paul Kagame is a little more fanciful, though it renders Kagame smaller and less important by tucking him into the bottom corner of a nondescript sky.
A more unusual Bush background serves his portrait of the late Václav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic. In place of the usual fog of neutral space, we see a wall of books behind the successful playwright, author, essayist, poet, dissident and politician.
That’s not the only departure. Havel has a big smile and dresses informally. He is not looking at the camera/painter because he is having too good a time. We may have issues with whatever is growing on his neck, but his face wins us back with its broad smile and filigree wrinkles.
The paintings of father and son Presidents 41 and 43 are the first we see. They are Bush 43’s self-portrait and what he calls a “loving study” of his father. The elder’s forehead and cheeks may puff and sag, but the image affects with sweet poignancy.
The artist takes more liberties with his own image, which may be his most recent. The style is very different, with looser, more obvious brushwork, bolder outlines and more vibrant hues, especially in the planes of neck and face. This slightly askance portrait seems more contemporary and informal — jaunty yet serious.
The artist is learning his craft.
— J R Compton has been writing about Dallas art and artists for 50 years, about birds for the last six, and his online How to Photograph Art may be definitive.