Archive for May 12th, 2021

Isn’t it great that he took up painting, hired tutors and practiced!  It’s an activity that can lead to self-reflection and insights into all sorts of things, like other people’s lives, how we conceptualize …cultural assumptions, uncertainties…

These paintings by Bush are not presented as a documentation of what he has learned so far, as evidence of effort.  They are presented to us as finished work, as art worth looking at. When something is presented as art it’s ipso facto interesting and important to think about.

Let’s do a thought experiment:   would my neighbor George have a chance of having his paintings shown in a gallery or published in a book?  He has been painting diligently since he retired ten years ago. His portraits are indistinguishable from Bush’s.

Whether or not George, my neighbor, can get his paintings shown depends on what we know about George.  What’s George’s story? Is he blind or paralyzed or recovering from a stroke?  Is he autistic or dyslexic or epileptic?  Was his father a Greek immigrant or an African genocide survivor or a Russian spy or a US president?  In our present social climate and art world hype these questions weave the scrim through which we see images.

Try another thought experiment:  you buy a portrait at a yard sale that’s just awful but it looks like oil paint and it’s the right size.  You plan to use it as a waterproof mat in your mud room at the side door to your garden.  As you take it out of the frame you see the signature “John Wilkes Booth.”  You know he was an actor. Couldn’t he also have been trying to paint?  It’s a terrible painting but you think you’d better have it authenticated because this could be worth something.  Inept as it is, the name will override the awfulness.

A 2014 review in the Guardian agrees with me:   [George W Bush’s] portrait of Putin actually looks like something you would find in one of America’s trash-rich Salvation Army stores and buy to laugh at. It’s got a classic amateur clumsiness and oddity to it. Bush has attempted to render shadow and shape in stylish blocks of fawn and woodchip and cookies ‘n cream, but they don’t sit right and the whole head looks mildly crazed. Perhaps this mad look is what is meant by revealing Putin’s “soul”, but it seems inept rather than insightful.


No, wait.  The Salvation Army stores used to stack their “art” in bins so that you could page through them.  I had a student a few years ago who used to go there to buy awful paintings because she needed stretched canvas to re-use—much cheaper than buying canvas in art supply stores.

I went to my local Salvation Army store last week to see if they had anything as awful as the portraits by Bush, walked straight to the back and found all pictures neatly displayed.  Somebody stood there facing the display, entranced by a copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper.  It looked as if it had been painted on a slab of wood.  I couldn’t get close because after about a minute the Entranced One unhooked it to take it to check-out.

The original is a fresco covering one wall of the dining room in a monastery in Milan, Italy.  Leonardo labored over the perspective to create the illusion that the Last Supper is taking place in that very monastery refectory so that the monks would be edified by saintly company.

Along with much of High Renaissance art, this painting has been adapted in countless Kitsch mockeries.  Here are some:


Sorry about that tangent.  I didn’t mean to associate Bush with the Renaissance in any way, only wanted to clarify the reference to the Salvation Army.

Back to Bush.   A more recent Guardian article, from 2017, refracts the whole portrait project in the context of Bush’s presidency, stating:    In his new book Portraits of Courage, the subjects of the former president’s paintings are the very men torn to shreds, quite literally, by his own policy.


Painting can be therapeutic. If Mr.Bush engages in painting to heal his guilt, let him.

If “idiocy has its charms” (quoting that article here), please, Mr. Bush, show us how you worked through that stage of charming idiocy and then finally developed insights for us to contemplate.

We hope you heal, Mr. Bush.

There is, of course, plenty of commentary on Bush’s paintings, for example:


Next, let’s take a closer look at how Mr. Bush does not see eyes.


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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