As the world continues to lurch from crisis to crisis in Lebanon, Ukraine, and Nigeria, one begins to wonder if traditional diplomacy is failing us. If diplomatic cables, high summits and the Security Council can’t solve the pressing issues of our day, what can? What can bring together a fractious world to the same table? Thankfully, it seems that even if Barack Obama or David Cameron can’t assemble world leaders peaceably into the same room, there is still one thing that can: George W. Bush’s paintbrush.
Yes, just when we thought we had permanently stuffed eight deeply regrettable years of George W. Bush’s presidency into the same deep corner of our memory where we keep humiliating memories from childhood and junior high school gym class, President Bush has returned to the world stage not with policy proposals, but with paintings ranging from portraits of world leaders to intimate bathroom self-portraits. It’s a fascinating star turn for a president whose foreign policy and time in office in general was, shall we say, less than artful. And as President Bush’s hapless successor bounces from one international quandary to another, the arrival of our man George on the international arts stage has been an interesting sideshow. Perhaps a bit unfairly, reaction to the former President’s art debut in the press has largely reflected standard partisan lines. FOX News’ coverage confidently declared that President Bush “will go down in history as a great artist,” (and revealed that Bush apparently painted a special portrait of FOX commentator Dana Perino’s dog), while The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones declared that Bush’s work “looks like something you would find in one of America’s trash-rich Salvation Army stores and buy to laugh at.” Well, Jonathan, perhaps that’s true—but as an American taxpayer funding President Bush’s retirement pension, I’ve effectively already bought it, so the joke’s on me. But momentarily setting aside our partisan differences, is there anything that the former president’s artwork can tell us? Is there anything worth looking at here? On artistic merit alone, and with all due respect to Mr Bush, not really. Several of Bush’s portraits of other world leaders have their subjects suffering from strange facial conditions: Vladimir Putin sports a very uneven tan line (too much Crimean sunshine, perhaps), one of Angela Merkel’s eyes seems to be migrating northward, and Tony Blair looks ready to shoot lasers from his eyes at unsuspecting prey (an ability which Tony likely would have loved, really). Several of Bush’s likenesses of his colleagues aren’t half bad—his rendering of Nicolas Sarkozy makes excellent use of shading, Australian Prime Minister John Howard exudes a warm glow, and Canadian PM Stephen Harper looks more likeable than he ever has in real life. President Bush does not confine himself to world leaders alone, however. A quick tour of his work reveals that he delights in painting dogs and landscape scenes from his Crawford, Texas, ranch. Two self-portraits, though, deserve special attention. Both set in Bush’s bathroom, we see Bush from behind, standing nude in the shower (no presidential booty on offer, however) gazing back at us in a mirror. In the other, we assume Bush’s own view of himself in the bathtub, his feet poking up coyly through the soapy water. There’s a long string of easy jokes I could make here—the emperor has no clothes, etc. But even as it pains this registered Democrat to say it, there’s something a bit bold here. Quality aside, there’s not a lot of other presidents that I know of who do artsy nude self-portraits upon leaving office. (In the case of certain members of the US Congress, it’s more often unintended, less artsy nude photos that force them to leave office in the first place). While other members of George Bush’s Cabinet such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney occasionally resurface from my repressed nightmares to yell and bicker on cable television, George Bush seems content just to paint and while away the years quietly with palette in hand. Harmless, even touching, and it gives FOX News something to coo over. If I ever find one at the Salvation Army store, well, I may just buy it myself.