On April 5, “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy,” opened at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University. The display, which runs through June 3, boasts “portraits of more than two dozen world leaders” painted by Bush, according to the official literature.
Unwitting subjects included: Prime Minister Tony Blair, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, President Vladimir Putin, Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The show also features a 7-minute video produced by The History Channel.
“Painting portraits of my friends and some people who weren’t necessarily my friends gave me a sense to convey a feeling I have about them,” Bush says in the clip.
According to Bush, he began painting in 2012 after reading Winston Churchill’s essay “Painting as a Pastime.”
“It inspired me,” he explained in the video.
The essay first appeared in The Strand Magazine in two parts: “Hobbies” (December 1921) and “Painting as a Pastime” (January 1922). “Try [painting] if you have not done so — before you die,” wrote Churchill. There are parallels between the artistic lives of Bush and Churchill: they are largely traditionalists who work in oil on canvas and who both embraced the art form after leading costly military campaigns.
In Bush’s case, we are still calculating the price of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During World War I, Churchill was stripped of his title as First Lord of the Admiralty after the disastrous Battle of Gallipoli. “When this war is over I shall confine myself entirely to writing and painting,” Churchill said in November 1915, according to Martin Gilbert’s 1994 book, “In Search of Churchill: A Historian’s Journey.”
Churchill completed over 500 paintings, brawling his way though each one. “Painting is like fighting a battle,” Churchill wrote in his essay. Following that logic, Bush could have fought harder here. Roberta Smith called Bush’s show “a hagiographic soup of an exhibition” in The New York Times on April 7. Some, including writer/director Greg Allen, have pointed out Bush didn’t exactly challenge himself. “Bush painted his portraits … from the top search result on Google Images,” wrote Allen on his website.