George W.'s got an art show in April


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Bush can't help but to appear more observant, sensitive and creatively expressive in these works.
  • Bush can't help but to appear more observant, sensitive and creatively expressive in these works.
It's been one and half terms since George W. Bush was in office, and since then, number 43 has spent his time quite privately. Like his predecessors, he's done charity work, wrote his memoir and golfed. But he's also painted, which isn't news to most of us.

Since a hacker debuted the news that Bush had taken up the paintbrush a year ago, his oeuvre has taken the public largely by surprise. There are his bathroom portraits, folksy and bizarre; his portraits of his dogs, Barney in particular is quite charming; and landscapes, a usual exercise for a burgeoning artist.

In April, Bush's works — two dozen-plus "never-before-exhibited portraits" — will go on display at his presidential museum in Dallas. They'll be shown with photos and artifacts from his time as president, and cornily titled The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy

Now, the stories of W's hobby are coming to light, along with opinions from art critics and reporters alike, that have cast the former president in a surprisingly accessible light.

He started several years ago, approaching art teacher Bonnie Flood with this directive, he told Jay Leno: "There's a Rembrandt trapped in this body. Your job is to find him."
A portrait of his late dog Barney.
  • A portrait of his late dog Barney.

Damn. But he was joking, and he has well acknowledged that his stature is what gives the paintings their public profile, not so much their artistic merit (on a side note, he signs them with "43"). Clearly, the man isn't taking himself too seriously here.

But Jerry Saltz on Vulture was very impressed, and talked him up more on CNN. CNN also blogged the opinions of a handful of artists and teachers, who shared their mixed reviews, but it's a pretty boring read. (Here are people who are taking themselves too seriously. The comments, actually, are better.)

 asked critics as well, who wondered what Freudian parallels they might draw from his bathroom paintings: Water to rinse away guilt? Confinement in the most private spaces to thwart surveillance?

People like to point out that Churchill, Eisenhower and Carter all painted following their terms in office, and that Hitler made a go of art before finding work in fascism, but for the most part, Bush stands on his own here. Their works are more academic, careful and largely impersonal. W is taking a far more risky track, and for now, it seems to be working.

It's hard to put politics aside, but like me, a lot of people seem to be also weirdly compelled to his inscrutable style. As Saltz waxed about W's bathroom paintings:
They reflect the pleasures of disinterestedness. A floater. Inert. The images of a man who saw the entire world from the inside but who finds the smallest, most private place in a private home to imagine his universe. Of almost nothingness. Sweet, sublime, oblique oblivion. The visibility of invisibleness.


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