The world first learned that George W. Bush had taken up painting in February 2013 after a hacker broke into his sister Dorothy s email account and discovered two self-portraits – later posted online – of the former U.S. president in the shower and bathtub.
In the months that followed, other paintings by Bush began to leak out – dogs, cats, a watermelon, a horse, a landscape of a golf course. Bush even presented a portrait of Jay Leno to the late-night talk show host during one of his final broadcasts.
Now, the latest of our Portraitist in Chief’s artistic works have been put on display at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, in an exhibit (“The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy”) that spotlights 30 oil-on-board paintings of world leaders Bush dealt with during his time in office – from a stern-faced Vladimir Putin to a girlish-looking Angela Merkel. The works will remain on display through June 3.
Shortly after the exhibition was unveiled last week, Twitter and other social media sites erupted with popular opinion. In the hopes of adding some expert commentary to the buzz, PEOPLE asked Bill Arning, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, to survey GW’s collection.
PEOPLE: What’s your first reaction when you look at GW’s paintings?
Bill Arning: They definitely have something that makes them kind of memorable. I have a number of Dallas friends intending to hightail over to see them in person. It s worth a side trip to go see these, just for cocktail party conversation alone. They are (Chaim) Soutine-like portraits, thickly painted in what I would call “high-amateur” mode by someone who has clearly studied a little art history and worked with an art teacher.
What other artists do you see in his work?
Beyond Soutine, they also remind me of (paintings done by) a number of emerging artists in New York like Erik Hanson. His portraits are remarkably similar (to these). If I walked into some Chelsea gallery and saw this as a precocious 24-year-old Yale graduate (and saw these paintings), I’d say: “Oh, this is an interesting take on portraiture in 2014. Nothing wrong with that at all.”
What do you think about the Putin painting?
The Putin one was interesting, but it strikes me as being one of the least lively in the series. He looks somewhat Freddy Krueger-like – although I’m not sure if that was his intention or not. I kind of like the portrait of his dad:
What do you like about it?
I thought that was the one that was psychologically the most loaded, but of course dad portraits always are. As soon as you paint the same-sex parent – because you always have a little bit of yourself in your dad and the fact that they both worked in similar lines of work – I consider that to be psychologically the deepest one. It s also the one with the most agitated expression. You could literally build cities in the flesh folds in George Bush Sr.’s face.
Any other paintings stand out?
The one of Ehud Olmert, the (former) Israeli prime minister, is the liveliest one. He looks like someone who never stops talking.
What painting tips would you give him?
I would say they need to be less based on photographic reproduction. You can tell when someone is taking a found photograph and making a painting out of it. It feels a little deadening … I think he’d be well advised to work from other, multiple photographic sources or the real person to get a little bit more liveliness going on. As soon as you work from a found photo there is a deadening effect. Some artists use this as part of the subject matter, but I don t think that s the intention here.
Any closing thoughts?
It’s interesting to see who cannot look at these because of who the author is. If you are so bent out of shape because of your history (with Bush), it’s an interesting moment of self-analysis to ask, “Can I look at these as paintings?”
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