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February 15, 2013

House of Burgess: The artwork of George W. Bush

Surprisingly, it’s actually pretty good.

Last Wednesday, when I started pondering what I’d write about in this week’s column, I never would have dreamed I would be seriously pondering the artistic output of President George W. Bush. That all changed Thursday when The Smoking Gun reported a hacker called “Guccifer” had infiltrated several email accounts connected to the Bush family.

“Correspondence obtained by the hacker indicates that at least six separate e-mail accounts have been compromised, including the AOL account of Dorothy Bush Koch, daughter of George H.W. Bush and sister of George W. Bush,” reported The Smoking Gun. “Other breached accounts belong to Willard Heminway, 79, an old friend of the 41st president who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut; CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz, a longtime Bush family friend; former first lady Barbara Bush’s brother; and George H.W. Bush’s sister-in-law.”

I didn’t find much of the information contained in the poached correspondence incredibly interesting. But then came the paintings.

“The intercepted photos also featured a portrait painted by George W. Bush of himself showering,” reported Reuters. “It shows a gray-headed man, nude from the waist up, regarding the viewer with Bush-like features from the reflection in a shaving mirror. Another painting in the same style shows a pair of legs in a bathtub.”

This is a major development as the world had only previously seen one of Bush’s pieces. The first was a tribute to his late dog, Barney, which was painted from a photograph. There’s nothing overly remarkable about the piece, other than the fact it shows Bush’s signature as “43” (as in 43rd president). Dubya is far from the first world leader to take up the brush. Famously, Adolf Hiter, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower all engaged the art form. Perusing the available examples of the work of Hitler, Churchill and Eisenhower, though, none of it is anywhere near as striking as the two Bush bathroom pieces. Portraits, landscapes and still lifes comprise the vast majority of the portfolios of the other artistically inclined world leaders. From a simple relaxation standpoint, though, I can totally understand why these busy men would choose such sedentary subjects. All one has to do is set up, take in the surroundings and let the work come to you. In that way it’s a lot like fishing or any other hypnotic pastime. On the down side, it generally makes for less-than-compelling art, however. But I found the Bush self-portraits stunning and challenging. If I didn’t know who they were produced by, I still would have been taken by them. There’s a lot going on right under the surface. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

“Both [paintings] border on the visionary, the absurd, the perverse, the frat boy,” wrote New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz on Friday. “Each echoes the same isolation in small space. Rumination without guilt. Thought without dark nights. The light in each is soft, subtle, embracing, even oscillating. As if the unreal has become a companion to the painter.”

For all his many, many shortcomings as a leader of men, I always found his near-constant stream of malapropisms undeniably endearing. (In a House of Burgess column published four years ago, I referred to his diction as an “experimental jazz take on the English language.”) These “Bushisms” as they came to be known are familiar by now. From knowing “how hard it is for you to put food on your family” to asking the tough questions like “Is our children learning?” to imparting such timeless wisdom as “families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream,” the laughs never seemed to end. But perhaps words were just the wrong mode of expression for him.

“They misunderestimated me,” said Bush in 2000. Mr. President, you may be right.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.

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