Reactor

Do Bush’s Paintings Tell Us Anything About the Former President?

by Hrag Vartanian on February 8, 2013

Bush painting (via

Bush painting (all photos Guccifer via Smoking Gun)

Thanks to a hacker with the odd sounding handle of Guccifer (Lucifer of Gucci?) we have all been blessed with a glimpse of the artistic private life of former US President George W. Bush. Guccifer tapped into various Bush emails from the period of 2009–2012, which included private correspondence and family photos, but also his art, as The Smoking Gun reported:

The hacker also intercepted photos that George W. Bush e-mailed two months ago to his sister showing paintings that he was working on, including self-portraits of him showering and in a bathtub. Another image shows the former president painting at the family’s Maine retreat (his subject is St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, a historic seaside chapel down the road from the sprawling Kennebunkport compound).

It’s not a new phenomenon for former world leaders to turn to painting, and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were both known to be avid painters — even corresponding on the subject. Regarding that seemingly unusual artistic relationship, Sister Wendy Beckett (our favorite nun art critic) has this to say:

Writing to Churchill in 1950, Eisenhower said, “I have a lot of fun since I took it up, in my somewhat miserable way, your hobby of painting. I have had no instruction, have no talent, and certainly no justification for covering nice, white canvas with the kind of daubs that seem constantly to spring from my brushes. Nevertheless, I like it tremendously, and in fact, have produced two or three things that I like enough to keep.” This is language rather different from Churchill’s own, which speaks about art in exalted terms: “Soul,” “Contemplation of harmonies,” “Joy and glory.” But for Churchill, painting genuinely mattered. He had an outdoor hobby, bricklaying, but that satisfied him far less than the aesthetic stimulus he derived from gazing at something beautiful and trying to make visible his personal reaction to it. For Eisenhower, the excitement was in the manual skill in producing a copy, usually of a photograph or a magazine reproduction.

Bush in the shower?

Bush showering.

Now, we have Bush’s paintings, which are strangely introspective and emotional for a President that many choose to see as cold and dumb. In the painting of him showering, the position of the viewer is odd. Are we looking into the mirror, or is Bush’s sense of perspective off and we are standing behind the former President in the shower in some form of locker room or prison fantasy? The scene is somewhat unnerving, and there’s no clear answer.

Bush in the tub.

Bush in the tub.

In another work, Bush sits in the bathtub surrounded by the banal trappings of his bathroom. 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 the symbolism or richness. This is a dull painting.

These three paintings — I’m including the church work at his easel in the photo above — are a far cry from “portraits of dogs and arid Texas landscapes” that Joe Hagan wrote that he was painting in his profile of the Bushes last October in New York Magazine. These demonstrate to us a more inward looking Bush, a man who is exploring his emotional life through paint.

Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that the man who brought us a vision of compassionate conservatism would turn to art to express the angst of a crappy Presidency that got us into two wars, used homophobia, racism, and sexism as an electoral tool, crashed our economy, and made the world hate America. This is a man who is obviously feeling his mortality. He sits in the bathtub alone. Nothing to contemplate. Nothing to see beyond reflections of himself and his body. There is almost a melancholy in these images, with their grays, and he is not presented a strong, heroic person, quite the opposite. This is not the George W. Bush of Fox News or Sunday morning talk shows. This is Bush, the old man, with lots of time on his hands. Once the most powerful man in the world, Bush is now alone, exploring his immediate surroundings in these spurts of introspection. If only he had done this all along, maybe he would’ve been a better leader.

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  • uffthefluff

    Trolling is an art. W’s presidency was a performance piece but now he’s an outsider artist.

    • sanity_in_florida

      Maybe the hacker can get copies of Obama’s college transcripts, too. How about the real Benghazi terrorist report, too?

  • http://www.facebook.com/brianmoz Brian Fernandes-Halloran

    Oh no, I love the bathroom paintings!

  • Manuel del Cuevo

    DUDE, the TUB painting is awesome.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I couldn’t disagree with you more. It’s like Frida Kahlo very very lite.

      • http://www.facebook.com/brianmoz Brian Fernandes-Halloran

        I like the off center compositions and wonky perspective though.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          Seems run of the mill though, no? Wonky perspective can also come from inexperience.

          • http://www.facebook.com/brianmoz Brian Fernandes-Halloran

            true but I’m getting a kind of bored down, early Micheal Williams vibe from these. rrr maybe a bit of a stretch.

        • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

          As Hrag suggested… that is likely due to inexperience. Now I want to see a comparison of past world leader art.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lola.scarpitta Lola Scarpitta

        Or perhaps he just copied it but did not have deep enough thoughts to add in the water as Kahlo did…

        • http://www.facebook.com/brianmoz Brian Fernandes-Halloran

          less is more even in the tub :)

  • Guest
    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Yup, linked to that in the post.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lola.scarpitta Lola Scarpitta

        Good, because nobody seems to notice in all the posts I’ve seen around the internet that this is too close for comfort….

  • http://www.facebook.com/lola.scarpitta Lola Scarpitta

    Kahlo did it first and did it better….

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.blakley.33 Daniel Blakley

    Your final paragraph contains what I assume you wish were true, but contains no justification or even a shred of evidence (as well as a lot of very extreme and absolute political statements). I’m not a fan of Bush, but making an emotional character attack on a man through his art is just foul. Defining another man’s art (spoken with authority as if you knew his artistic feelings personally) as a conduit for your hate for him is disgraceful as a journalist.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brianmoz Brian Fernandes-Halloran

      I think he is saying what a lot of people are thinking.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      It doesn’t appear you understand when someone is writing as a journalist or a critic, and no, they are not the same thing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/herren Matthew Herren

      “Not the Bush of Fox News”…

      Such an odd remark and you’re right, seems to be a projection of the writer’s feelings more than anything else. George W. Bush was portrayed as larger-than-life more by his critics on MSNBC than by FNC. While Fox was obviously supportive, the caricature of him being some grandiose mastermind villain, constantly plotting and scheming was more of a creation of his critics than anything else. While I, too, have been a harsh critic of many of his policies… by most accounts he is a fine person and a very nice human being. These images fit right in with accounts of anyone that bothered to learn about him on a personal level. We should not be so far gone in our partisanship that we cannot differentiate between many the man’s policies being wrong-headed and him being personally evil.

    • Nate Barrett

      This is critique, not journalism. Try again.

    • http://twitter.com/Duerr M.C

      idiot.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

      The only thing I found odd about the article was this part… “Are we looking into the mirror, or is Bush’s sense of perspective off
      and we are standing behind the former President in the shower in some
      form of locker room or prison fantasy.”. Considering the sexual preference of the writer… could it be that this statement reveals some of his own fantasies? If so, why does an image of Bush showering trigger such a response? Psychologically speaking, could it be that the writer has a love / hate relationship in his head concerning this former President that goes beyond mere political differences? Ha, ha.

  • gerryvisco

    Hrag, great piece and I agree with you wholeheartedly about George W. Bush’s presidency and his rather bizarre introspection in these paintings. But let’s give Bush credit — that bathtub self-portrait is ROCKIN’! Move over, Frida, I give you George W., painter!!

  • gerryvisco

    P.S. George W. is a far better painter than Hitler.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      What a hilarious distinction!

      • gerryvisco

        In my opinion, he’s also a better painter than Charles Manson.

      • http://www.facebook.com/dedorsey David Dorsey

        Franz Liebkind: “Hitler – there was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! Two coats!”

    • http://www.facebook.com/naveman01 Dwight Nave

      And by Hitler I assume you must mean Obama.

      • gerryvisco

        Nay, sir, or shall I call you KNAVE. Obama is NOT Hitler. He is our current president and is not a painter, as far as I know. Traitorous and scurrilous comments like yours will not raise you in the art world. If you do not like the United States, then find another country where you can make negative comments about what is surely a decent human being who thus far has not dabbled in painting.

      • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

        I don’t really think you can compare Obama to Hitler. I don’t care much for Obama… but the whole ‘he is just like Hitler’ rant is baseless.

    • http://twitter.com/Stick_mann stick mann

      why do mass murders feel the need to paint after the fact?

      • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

        Boredom?

    • james woronow

      one more thing that they had in common, both bad painters – who is worse?

      • gerryvisco

        I do think George W. is better — Hitler’s paintings dealt mostly with architecture and rarely painted human beings, but his style was so banal and predictable. Bush’s paintings are certainly not brilliant but they convey a certain feeling that Hitler’s lacked. However, Hitler made his name as a despicable despot through his skills as a maniacal performance artist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-Bruno/100001614253128 Bob Bruno

    Obviously Bush feels like he’s dirty and needs to cleanse himself… maybe of the blood of Iraqi children?

  • http://twitter.com/basquiatball J. Doug Hatings

    Bush
    faces us, the viewer, and we can only see his face via a means of
    mediation- a mirror. Yet his nude body is exposed without mediation
    (outside of being a painting). His action, while being viewed this way
    is showering- attempting to clean himself as
    we watch. But the water, instead of cleaning him, falls limply without
    reaching him. He can’t get clean under our gaze and he can’t face us
    directly. Yet he is attempting to face us. To me, it’s clear that there
    is a deep lying shame within him, and a desire to be cleansed of it,
    but he is incapable of absolving himself, so pleads with the viewer to
    do it for him. The mediation of the mirror (which may represent the act of painting
    itself), however, prevents the direct action required to allow for absolution.
    Hence the internal frustration and despair.

    • http://twitter.com/thedanzatap Nuh Teetor

      Sometimes, J. Doug, an amateur painter is just an amateur painter.

  • Manuel del Cuevo

    This critique based on the tub painting being somehow derivative of or too similar or just inferior to the Kahlo painting is just bizarre. Formally, the two are like night and day. As far as content, or transmitted meaning, or whatever—they’re even more divergent. Clearly you’re problem is summed up in the last paragraph. I couldn’t agree with you more with regard to the horrorshow of the W era, but really….you’re jumping the chance to grind that axe and beat the dead horse of George W. Bush (in the process giving him FAR too much agency in the events detailed, thereby shifting the focus off the real forces propelling events, but that’s another story.) Jerry Saltz provided a far more interesting take on the surprise revelation that W isn’t just painting dogs as previously reported. Those are the ones I really want to see. I love dog paintings.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      You can’t really critique a painting (beyond the subject matter) without seeing it. And he is painting dogs, and we linked to one in the post: http://blog.zap2it.com/pop2it/2013/02/former-first-dog-dies-george-w-bush-releases-painting-of-barney.html

      • Manuel del Cuevo

        Thanks for the dog link, I had missed that one. re: critiquing the painting w/ out seeing, what a cop out. Certainly you can examine the composition at least. Maybe you should have skipped this post if you weren’t up to the task at hand. I think Jerry Saltz did a more insightful job putting the work in context. Of course, probably because he liked it. I also still am having a hard time with the Kahlo-based criticism. There is a long and vaunted history of painting versions, tackling the subjects from art history. If that’s even what inspired the work (which I honestly doubt).

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          I think any critic who tries to give a full critique of an art work through a bad jpg should be a little embarrassed.

  • otto42

    Out out, damned spot.

  • http://twitter.com/Metatron_Qube nacho borealis

    Bush in the tub. LOLERZ OMd

  • sanity_in_florida

    The hacker is a crook and should go to jail.

  • http://twitter.com/EzShake Ezekial Shake

    very David Hockney, and kind of soothing and surreal … the last things I would have expected

  • pdqed

    He has a way with paint that as a beginner is quite lovely. The water in the tub, the legs under the water, the faucet running are all difficult to paint, and he has done it well. I also liked the one in the shower. Mixing skin colors is not easy and again he has made a beautiful skin and hair that is easy to look at.

  • pdqed

    The teacher in one art course I took had us paint items in black, white and shades of grey only. It was very effective and forced us to use proper shadowing. Bush must have learned the greyish tones from someone like her. Only an amateur psychologist would see the greys as negative signs of his state of mind or conscience.

  • Jim Demetre

    His obsession with washing himself clean makes me think of Macbeth.

  • disqus_QMDTAjlFBx

    The shower and bath photo both have a disconnected look about them. His lower limbs are hidden beneath the water and in the other his face isn’t directly in front of the mirror. Squint your eyes and check out the shadowy monster face on the back of his head in the shower shot. He’s trying to get back to the source – his soul. Most psychopaths head towards water thinking it will cleanse them somehow.

  • http://www.facebook.com/billraydrums Bill Ray Drums

    What is he trying to wash from himself?

  • http://www.regansravings.blogspot.com pilgrimboy

    The strangest thing about the “Bush showering” painting is that he is not even looking at the mirror, yet the mirror is still showing his reflection as if he is.

  • GreenMarine

    The skewed perspective of the mirror is interesting… is W. saying when we see him we are seeing ourselves?

  • http://www.facebook.com/andre.howard Andre Howard

    I’ll never like him but I fucking love that shower painting.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I’d love to hear why you love it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/unitzkay Kay Schmitz

    Shut up on all of your opinions!

  • blackdogg

    A little Bird told me Larry Gagosian Signed GWB 43 to a five show exclusive deal.

  • 80887

    The shower painting clearly depicts bush standing behind another naked middle-aged man.

  • muhrvis

    A hostile analysis of someone’s private paintings that were stolen and used without his knowledge is always useful to society. I hate George Bush, but actually he should sue you, he ‘d have a good chance of winning because you knowingly published materials that were stolen.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      A man who can legally through the Patriot Act has the right to read all our emails but we can’t read his? Interesting …

      • http://twitter.com/PhiloAmericana Philo Americana

        Again, you are shamefully ignorant.

  • muhrvis

    Why are my comments being “moderated”? No bad language, clear civil opinions being expressed.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Disqus is funny, and forces us to moderate a lot more than we should have to.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=661256074 Mars Tokyo

    No amount of bathing can wash his sins away.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.mcmasters Aaron McMasters

    This review sucked. My animation kicks ass though. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10200582490512780

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-P-Center/1571185345 John P Center

    this is total BULL SHIT. The art world is one of the worst biased un-educated bunch of morans i have ever known. They are the ones i would never ask an opinion on HISTORY, POLITICS, WORLD EVENTS. hell i wouldn’t even ask them about art and i am a engraver.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      … nothing like stereotyping …

      • http://twitter.com/PhiloAmericana Philo Americana

        Nothing like letting your prejudices cloud your judgement, Hrag.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Elwyn-Palmerton/583617777 Elwyn Palmerton

    These aren’t good paintings. They are near-great bad paintings.

  • http://twitter.com/PhiloAmericana Philo Americana

    What a disgusting and pathological article. You threw objectivity completely out the window, so you could keep your own prejudices. Anyone with good sense knew a long time ago that Bush had these sort of sensibilities about him. You should be ashamed, Hrag.

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