Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
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.
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.
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.