The Magazine

The Artist Known as 43

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23
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The Scrapbook finds itself in a quandary. A pair of paintings by George W. Bush have emerged in cyberspace. But they got there because the Bush family’s email account was hacked, and images of Bush’s art, intimate family gatherings, even George H. W. Bush’s recent hospitalization were quickly splashed across the Internet. So while The Scrapbook wants to get in its two cents on the subject of these two pictures, it does not wish to join in this outrageous invasion of privacy. (Bush seems to have emailed photographs of the paintings to his sister, Doro.) 

So let’s just say, for the record, that The Scrapbook had no idea George W. Bush was a Sunday painter, and let us say also that the works are better than you would expect, show imagination, and are certainly evidence of Bush’s well-developed sense of humor.

Both are self-portraits set in, of all places, a bathroom. One depicts him standing in a shower, from the waist up, his back to the canvas and his face revealed in a tiny circular mirror; the perspective in the other is the painter’s own, his legs stretching forward in the water of a bathtub. The paintings—in their awkward simplicity, bright colors, and irregular perspective—strike The Scrapbook as delightful. We would like to see more.

Needless to say, the critical reaction, especially among the mentioning classes, has been predictable. The Huffington Post immediately reminded its readers that Adolf Hitler, too, was an amateur painter; the New Yorker’s website elicited responses dangerously close to self-parody: “W was and remains a vile person. .  .  . He should be doing time for war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Britain’s Guardian—“arguably worse than the twee oil paintings of Dwight D. Eisen-hower”—managed to sound both tendentious and ridiculous.

The fact is that George W. Bush is not the first statesman to find painting therapeutic. Ike was a Sunday painter (and arguably more talented than the Guardian will admit); Winston Churchill took up painting after the 1915 Gallipoli disaster nearly ended his political career. Indeed, in old age, Churchill published a book entitled Painting as a Pastime, in which he declared, “I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind.”

It has always been known that George W. Bush is a considerably more rigorous intellect than his reputation in the media would suggest; and certainly, as the husband of a librarian, he is a voracious reader. But The Scrapbook finds itself pleasantly surprised by the knowledge that art may now be included among his attributes. 

The creative urge among retired presidents is not always strong, and for every Jimmy Carter who writes poetry (She’d smile, and birds would feel that they no longer / had to sing—“Rosalynn”) there’s a Gerald Ford or Bill Clinton on the links. More power, then, to George W. Bush and his paintings.

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