The unlikely art of George W. Bush

  • Article by: KEN HERMAN , Cox Newspapers
  • Updated: April 17, 2014 - 11:33 AM

If the polarizing former president hoped to surprise critics with his skill and depth as a painter — well, mission accomplished.

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A detail of a portrait of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert which is part of the exhibit "The Art of Leadership: A President's Diplomacy," is on display at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Friday, April 4, 2014. The exhibit of world leader portraits painted by former President George W. Bush opens Saturday and runs through June 3.

Photo: Benny Snyder, Associated Press - Ap

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AUSTIN, Texas — Concepts some folks have trouble getting their brain around: Mack Brown as an ex-coach, Rick Perry as a presidential candidate, George W. Bush as a painter.

“Hey Van Gogh, how’s the ear?” I was prepared to tell Bush if I got in wisecrack range during last week’s Civil Rights Summit.

I didn’t, perhaps saving myself a Secret Service throw-down. But a few days earlier I did get to see Bush’s portraits of world leaders at his presidential library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I’m no art expert (and I’m not even sure I know what I like when I see it), but I was impressed with Bush’s skills.

I can imagine some folks, especially folks who didn’t think the Bush presidency was any good, won’t think the portraits are any good. But I can’t imagine anyone thinking they’re not interesting.

We were puzzled when we first heard of Bush’s new hobby. The feedback may run along political lines, but I’m impressed by his willingness to try something new and hold it up for public scrutiny.

“I fully understand the signature is worth more than the painting,” Bush says on a video that plays at the exhibit.

People magazine asked Bill Arning, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, to critique Bush’s portraits. He said they “definitely have something that makes them kind of memorable.” Read that as you will.

Arning called them Chaim “Soutine-like portraits.” Soutine, as you know if you read Wikipedia, “developed an individual style more concerned with shape, color and texture over representation.” Darn if that isn’t exactly what I thought of Bush’s work, though I can’t imagine him telling his instructor, “I see myself doing something in the Soutine oeuvre.”

Arning said the portraits are “thickly painted in what I would call ‘high-amateur’ mode.” The “high” in “high amateur” probably refers to ranking, not inhaling. And Arning said he can imagine a young college graduate viewing Bush’s artwork as “an interesting take on portraiture in 2014.” That’s faint praise right up there with “something that makes them kind of memorable.”

The expert said Bush’s portrait of Vladimir Putin is “Freddy Krueger-like,” but called the one of Bush’s dad “psychologically the deepest one.”

“You could literally build cities in the flesh folds of (the elder Bush’s) face,” Arning told People.

Arning’s bottom line is that “It’s interesting to see who cannot look at these because of who the author is. If you are so bent out of shape because of your history (with Bush), it’s an interesting moment of self-analysis to ask, ‘Can I look at these as paintings?’ ”

Can you?

Three other Bush-related items of note:

At the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Library last week Bush said, “Former presidents compare their libraries the way other men compare their — well, I wonder how LBJ would have handled that.”

Kind of daring for a mixed audience, but well-delivered and well-received (though I have no intel on whether Laura Bush had any ex post facto criticism for her husband).

The second Bush Library-related note is last week’s announcement that it had delivered the bullhorn Bush used for his Ground Zero remarks to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York, which opens May 21, for display through mid-July.

Odd, isn’t it, that a president’s most famous speech was an impromptu one delivered through a bullhorn?

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