Impeach This Art? George W. Bush Has His Museum Debut in Dallas

The former president's new exhibition in Dallas is sure to be a blockbuster.

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"The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy" at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, running April 5 through June 3, 2014. Photo: Kim Leeson for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

On Friday morning the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum held a preview for what is without a doubt the most hotly anticipated exhibition in the Dallas institution’s 11-month history: an exhibition of its namesake’s paintings. Yes, George W. Bush’s surprising agility with a paintbrush can perhaps induce millions to forget about his total lack of competence as a head of state, and now the hysteria around his work has reached a degree equivalent to the “Severe” level on the terrorism threat color chart.

Among the works on view in “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Diplomacy” (on view through June 3) is a series of portraits of contemporaneous world leaders, including the UK’s Tony Blair, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, as well as the artist’s father, former US President George H.W. Bush. None of the politicians he has immortalized have had the opportunity to see their likenesses before, Bush said.

“I hope they take it in the spirit in which these were painted in,” Bush told his daughter Jenna Bush Hager on NBC’s “Today” show. “That was the spirit of friendship. And, you know, I admire them as leaders and was willing to give it a shot in terms of getting people to see how I felt about them.”

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“The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy” at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, running April 5 through June 3, 2014.
Photo: Kim Leeson for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

The artistic pursuits of the two-term US president—the man whose administration created the Department of Homeland Security—first came to light when a hacker accessed his email account in 2013 and posted the art on Gawker. Bush told his daughter that the hacker’s actions constituted “an invasion of one’s privacy.” He then went on to explain the origins of what may be his most compelling and complex work, a partial self-portrait in the shower, which was first brought to light by the hacker.

“I found it very interesting the first painting that came out was the one I painted of myself in the bathtub. I did so because I wanted to kind of shock my instructor,” Bush told his daughter. “It kind of shows my sense of humor.”

Strategically timed to open right before next week’s Dallas Art Fair, the exhibition of Bush’s paintings could be seen as a ploy to curry favor with the typically left-leaning art world. But that doesn’t seem to be panning out. The show’s press preview took place but several hours ago and already one erudite and dismissive review has been published, by the Daily Telegraph’s Alastaire Sooke. He writes:

Bush tries to brighten things up by presenting several of the leaders against backgrounds of flat color ranging from green and yellow to turquoise, in a way that is reminiscent of paintings by the American Pop artist Alex Katz. (Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) But this can’t hide the fact that these dreary and compositionally identical likenesses couldn’t feel more impersonal if they tried. Nothing here has the surprising interest or sense of uneasy psychological penetration of Bush’s bathroom self-portraits.

In a spirit of non-Bushian diplomacy, Sooke does find some redeeming value in the artist’s rendering of a grimacing Putin (below). “There is something unconventional and compelling about this image, which has seemingly been informed by Bush’s study of Francis Bacon,” the critic posits. “Far from flattering the Russian autocrat, it suggests a strained, potentially bruising relationship between sitter and artist—offering a reminder that subtle foreign policy was never Bush’s strong suit.”

The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy” continues at the George W. Bush Presidential Center through June 3, 2014.

"The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy" at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, running April 5 through June 3, 2014. Photo: Kim Leeson for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

“The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy” at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, running April 5 through June 3, 2014.
Photo: Kim Leeson for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.


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