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A Brush with Fame

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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When it became known last year that George W. Bush had taken up painting, The Scrapbook took note of the fact, commenting on a couple of random examples that they were “better than you would expect, show imagination, and are certainly evidence of Bush’s well-developed sense of humor. .  .  . The paintings—in their awkward simplicity, bright colors, and irregular perspective—strike The Scrapbook as delightful. We would like to see more.”

putin

Well, it seems that the former president was reading The Scrapbook, for last week, 30 new works went on display within an exhibition entitled “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy” at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. Apprentice novelists are always told to “write what you know,” and Mr. Bush has translated that advice onto canvas: These are 30 head-and-shoulders portraits of world leaders with whom he dealt as president. 

Attention has largely been paid to the portrait of Vladimir Putin, which, with its wary eyes, bland expression, and vague air of menace, seems to capture something of the Russian president. But the others—Tony Blair of Great Britain, Ehud Olmert of Israel, Angela Merkel of Germany, Junichiro Koizumi of Japan—are equally, sometimes startlingly, incisive. The literary scholar Willard Spiegelman, writing in the Wall Street Journal, seemed especially beguiled by Bush’s portrait of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Calling it a “knockout,” he was clearly impressed by the nascent talent that captured “the planes of color in her violet hat and dress [standing] in contrast to the dark skin tones and folds of her flesh.”

Needless to say, the former president’s debut as an artist has had predictable consequences: As we noted last time, the inevitable allusions to another amateur painter—Adolf Hitler—have been duly noted on the left, and the mere mention of his name sent the New Yorker into verbal paroxysms (“W was and remains a vile person”). 

As far as The Scrapbook is concerned, we remain beguiled by Bush’s art, and cannot help but notice that it shows signs of growth and confidence since last year. This has not gone unnoticed among critics and journalists, some of whom have been moved to say so. For our part, pulling on our art historian’s cap, we are struck by a resemblance to the Sunday paintings of Arnold Schoenberg, the great 20th-century composer and inventor of the 12-tone method of composition. We would invite readers to compare, say, Bush’s Putin with Schoenberg’s 1910 self-portrait: two very different subjects, but executed with a curiously similar approach and technique. 

Schoenberg’s art, we should add, was admired in its day by masters such as Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky. We await the professional verdict on Bush with interest.

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