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A War for Oils

by James Rosen

The presidential arts of George W. Bush

Unveiling original paintings of the world leaders he has known, George W. Bush flouts convention with a daring he only occasionally displayed as president of the United States. First, it is exceptional to see art — a manifestation of emotionalism and, more fundamentally, of humanism — come from politicians. Shouldn’t they be off somewhere carving up congressional districts, or, if retired, attending funerals? The practice of oil painting, which Mr. Bush says he took up on the posthumous advice of Winston Churchill, speaks to a certain sensitivity, a desire to commune with representation, shapes and shades, not often found in political animals. What’s more, it is as if the 43rd president had declared that, unlike his predecessors, he will not confine his renderings of his contemporaries to written memoirs, or to interviews in promotion thereof; rather, he shall enjoy a third term as portraitist, this time in oils on canvas.

The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy, which opened at the Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas early in April, represents, not surprisingly, a breakthrough more pronounced in form than in substance. As a portraitist — and even allowing for the fact that all portraiture involves an element of caricature — Mr. Bush proves himself a capable if unremarkable beginner. His works resemble the illustrations one might have found in Reader’s Digest or Scholastic Books, had the likes of Nouri al-Maliki ever attracted attention in such precincts. But there is much in the paintings that merits our attention.

The former president’s self-portrait is at once the most complex and the most revealing of the two dozen entries. Here, in a subtle blend of light hues, is George W. Bush the civilian conqueror who ventured so boldly and controversially into the Middle East, staring into the Middle Distance, neither contented nor broken, still assessing it all, and — as he surely wishes — still to be assessed. The painter has captured in himself, as in several of the other portraits, a characteristic discernible in many faces whereby one eye appears more closed than the other. In Mr. Bush’s reckoning with himself, this duality of vision surely speaks to the mixed legacy he left as president, and — in historiographical terms — to the man’s acknowledgment that it was so.

Mr. Bush’s framing of himself as a figure not readily understood comes even more sharply into view when the painting is contrasted with that of George H. W. Bush. A veteran of war, politics, and the intelligence community’s “wilderness of mirrors,” the 41st commander-in-chief is presented here as post-political: puffy, benign, smiling. That last fact doesn’t make Bush 41 unique in his son’s gallery. Silvio Berlusconi, simpatica canaglia, can be observed barely containing his glee, presumably at his next conquest; and even Angela Merkel, once adjudged by the 43rd president, in a public setting, to be urgently in need of massage therapy, manages here a wan grin. But once again, two-term son proclaims himself dramatically different from one-term father, and we are obliged to agree.

Least accomplished is the face of Hamid Karzai, so bad that the best that can be said for it is that the man depicted could plausibly appear in a police lineup for the Afghan president. The two closest likenesses are those of Tony Blair, in whom the element of caricature steals in from the top, in an exaggerated widow’s peak sure to stir consternation in the former British prime minister; and of Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister from 2006 to 2009, convicted in two separate corruption cases over the past two years. Mr. Bush’s Olmert looks up at his interlocutor, mouth agape, as if the wily Israeli had just reviewed another incriminating document at the witness table, the complex of forehead wrinkles belying another tortured explanation of the evidence.

Of all the portraits, Vladimir Putin, in art as in life, has captured the greatest attention on the part of the public. In this case, it is because the Russian president is the only subject of Mr. Bush’s paintings into whose soul, via the eyes, the artist has claimed to peer deeply. Such concentrated focus should by all rights have yielded an exceptional rendering, at least of the aforementioned eyes; but this Putin, while suitably stony, disappoints in its bluntness, its inability to reckon with the human complexity the artist so readily grasped in himself. The much-vaunted eyes are half-lidded and heavy, but do not offer the promised window into the essence of humanity: Putin’s elusive soul.

By contrast, a smidgen of affection creeps into the presentation of Maliki, the Iraqi president who was surely as vexatious an ally, in his way, as Karzai. Perhaps Mr. Bush sympathized with the delicate burdens of Shiite and Sunni politics that the former scholar and newspaperman was at all times forced to balance in Baghdad. It is in this painting that Mr. Bush, the unabashed neocon, betrays his disregard for realism — whether purposeful or accidental — with a noticeably asymmetric rendering of the two halves of Maliki’s eyeglasses. If purposeful, “asymmetric” may have been precisely the word on Mr. Bush’s mind.

Where affection is in shortest supply is in the one entry in which caricature hijacks portraiture: Pervez Musharraf. Uniquely, the former Pakistani president — whose help to the United States after 9/11 was neither cheap nor altogether convincing — finds the top of his head truncated by the picture frame, his distracted face excessively jowly and presented in a close-up so unflattering as to be worthy of 60 Minutes. By contrast, in the very next exhibit space, India’s Manmohan Singh gets some space, in a respectful head-and-shoulders treatment.

It is the Musharraf painting that adds most to the extant record of Mr. Bush’s dealings as leader of the free world. “Over time,” he wrote in Decision Points (2010), “it became clear that Musharraf either would not or could not fulfill all his promises.” This cardinal sin in Mr. Bush’s eye is surely reflected in his depiction of the distrusted Pakistani general as obscured, withheld — literally, more than meets the eye.

Some have suggested that the former president’s newfound enthusiasm for art reflects no real demonstration of humanism, just another attempt, however novel and labor-intensive, to reshape the reputation of a leader widely vilified, in his own time, as a warmonger. This criticism misses the mark. First, it fails to engage the works on their own terms. Second, it fails to recognize the fact that, were Mr. Bush bent on softening his image, he would have chosen subjects likelier to steer the mind away from the Afghan and Iraq wars than Messrs. Karzai, Musharraf, and Maliki.

George W. Bush is not running for the presidency, but he is also not running from his presidency. His oil works constitute a unique supplement to his memoirs, an attempt to record the men and women he worked with — and sometimes against — as he remembers them. In branching out to another medium to do so, he asserts over his contemporaries the dominance he probably found frustratingly difficult to project when they shared the world stage. The artist arrays unto himself, in retirement, a new, but familiar, kind of power: Once again, George W. Bush is The Decider.

– Mr. Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and a professional caricaturist.

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