George W. Bush: Great Painter? Or Greatest Painter?

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 8 2013 5:12 PM

George W. Bush: Great Painter? Or Greatest Painter?

Bush_stonechurch

Email accounts close to George W. Bush have apparently been hacked, exposing several private photos of the former president, according to a post from the Smoking Gun. The most interesting of the photos show what appear to be three paintings by W. himself.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

Are they any good? Are they great? Several art critics have weighed in already, and we consulted a few more for their expert opinion on the 43rd president’s budding oeuvre.

Bush_shower

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Slate art critic Christopher Benfey offered insight into Dubya’s influences from the world of high art:

Has W added looking at art books to his hobbies of cutting brush and falling off mountain bikes? Is he a fan of Bonnard’s paintings of his naked wife in a bathtub, or Mantegna’s supine dead Christ? Hockney’s swimming pools, maybe? An interesting riff, in the shower scene, on the self-portrait painted with the aid of a mirror, since we have to imagine the painter holding a brush—but, hey, easy to rinse it in the shower.

Benfey also detected a theme of surveillance and accompanying guilt:

I see one face peering out of the mirror, but is there another head emerging from between those two pigeon-toed feet? Privacy! Why can’t a president get any privacy? Eyes are watching everything you do. It’s like Psycho. Even poor Barney, in that portrait based, of course, on a photograph, is looking at 43 a little accusingly. “For here,” as Rilke wrote in his poem about a statue of naked Apollo, “there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”

It wasn’t just Benfey who picked up on a sense of heavy remorse. Contacted via email, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight compared the painting to Shakespearean tragedy:

Is George W. finally coming clean? Out, damned spot! Out, I say!
Bush_bath

In a review for Vulture, New York critic Jerry Saltz raved about the paintings, taking exception with Gawker’s proclamation that they were “awkward and simple.” Instead, the bathing paintings “border on the visionary, the absurd, the perverse, the frat boy”:

These are pictures of someone dissembling without knowing it, unprotected and on display, but split between the promptings of his own inner drives and limited by his abilities. 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.

After Saltz declined to psychoanalyze “why the water is running in both pictures,” the New Republic gamely piped up with a Freudian reading. “Man in Shower,” Michael Schaffer* says, reflects latent turmoil over Hurricane Katrina:

Consider the composition. The subject of the painting is not actually under the water. Physically, he stands back, reticent, his body still dry. In the shaving mirror, he watches from above, as if surveying the scene from an aircraft, a vaguely confused look on his face.

“Man in Bathtub,” on the other hand, is quite obviously a rumination on enhanced interrogation:

Why put up with the discomfort of lying down in a half-empty tub waiting for the water to pour down? The answer is clear—subconscious remorse about waterboarding. Consider the white item above the faucet. Perhaps it is a bunched-up curtain, or a towel hanging from a rack. But there is no window on that wall, and it is doubtful that the Bush family’s bathrooms are so cramped as to require that towels be hung within the tub itself. No, that item is likely a representation of the interrogator himself, preparing to give the helpless captive a dunk in the water even as the prisoner tries to distance himself. 

The painting of the stone building, though we can readily identify it as St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Kennebunkport, Maine, remains the most opaque. Saltz suggests that it might represent “the purity of the lone American farmer,” while the New Republic sees “the inner divide that dominated Bush’s public life: The New England traditionalism of his actual father versus the mountainous Wyoming ruggedness of his presidential tutor, Dick Cheney.” So which is it? That may be for later generations of art historians to decide.

*Correction, Feb. 11, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name of the New Republic's Michael Schaffer.

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