It's highly unusual for a public figure -- especially a high-profile politician -- to reveal something very personal and rather uncommon about himself. And to do it willingly?
Last Saturday, President George W. Bush had the courage of conviction to reveal himself to the public as an amateur painter. The New York Times' front page included photos of several portraits painted by W., who out of nowhere discovered passion for art. In the last two years, W. not only took art lessons, but on some days spent up to three or four hours at his easel.
New York Times' article coincided with the opening of an exhibition at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy." The reason why this exhibition was so widely commented on in the media -- including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the LA Times, the Guardian -- was because the exhibition presents a few dozen painted portraits of heads of state, whom George W. Bush got to know throughout his time as president.
Roberta Smith, New York Times art critic, refers to our former president as a "decent amateur." She even suggests some resemblance between his portraits and the works of well-known Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans. For myself, I have to admit, I was somewhat taken by the charming clunkiness of these portraits, with their energetic but occasionally messy brushstrokes. None of these portraits present the heads of state in a proper, formal way. Instead, some of the leaders confront us with an unsettling stare, while others are smiling or smirking. All of the above makes me wonder if W. is familiar with the art of another well-regarded artist, Marlene Dumas, whose portraits never flatter the subject.
As an aspiring painter, George W. Bush belongs to an exclusive club of heads of state who took up painting as a pastime. Among them, Winston Churchill, which is a relatively well-known fact. But you will probably be surprised -- the way I was -- to learn that Jimmy Carter, as well as his predecessors, Dwight Eisenhower and Ulysses Grant, also took to the brush as amateur painters.
But none of them seemingly had the same passion for art as W. does. As the New York Times article tells us, W. never cared too much for museums. During his visit to St. Petersburg, he was happy to rush through the Hermitage Museum in 30 minutes flat. But now, he's happy to "linger in art exhibits for hours at a time studying brushstrokes and color palettes." And to that, I want to exclaim, "W..., where have you been all these years?!" Can you imagine the cultural impact that W. could have had if he'd discovered and revealed his passion for art while still in The White House?
So let me conclude by offering to take our former president on a personal museum tour should he ever decide to come visit LA and to accept my invitation. Here are a few great artworks that I believe might appeal to W.
At the Getty Museum, he might get a kick out of Rembrandt's self portrait, where the young artist is laughing so freely, so happily --it's simply impossible not to respond in kind.
And then, we can venture to the Norton Simon Museum to stare at Van Gogh's "Portrait of a Peasant," who stares back at us so sternly.
And, if W. were a good sport, I would take him to the MOCA exhibition of Mike Kelley to walk through the narrow corridor with walls covered with large-scale portraits of well-known philosophers, poets, politicians, and artists. So who knows, our museum trip could be "the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.