As far as portraits go, President George W. Bush’s official portrait is spare. The man stands in the Oval Office wearing a plain grey suit, one hand resting on the back of a chair, the other hand hanging loose at his side. The 43rd president of the United States stares off into the distance, a hint of his signature smirk appearing at the corners of his mouth.
The traditional portrait, as John Berger argues in his seminal Ways of Seeing (1973), reflects a sense of privilege and ownership. Worldly objects signal the subject’s station in life. In Hans Holbein’s dual portrait The Ambassadors (1533), for example, a globe and maps accompany stately diplomats robed in luxuriant fabrics. In Thomas Hewart’s portrait (c. 1630-78/9) of Charles II, the king stands proudly in front of his grand manse—a sign of his power and wealth—while being presented with a rare item: the first pineapple grown in England. Such are the fruits of privilege.
In other portraits, it is not so much the objects that exude power, but the people surrounding the individual. In the 17th century, men of a certain stature would pay for the opportunity to be included in a group portrait, such as in Frans Hals’ Banquet of the Officers of the Saint George Militia (1616), so as to show off their importance vis-à-vis proximity to each other. Today there is no need for the rich and powerful to pay for such status images when the paparazzi are willing to do the work for free. The oil painting has largely been replaced by the photograph, and there are few better portraitists than Annie Liebowitz. Consider, for example, her portraits of President Obama’s first-term teams wherein the ties are loosened, the smiles broad, and the poses relaxed. Compare this sitting to that of Bush’s first term entourage where key players in an ascendant regime—all dressed in dark suits—pose with confidence. One even perceives smugness in the faces of Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Bush himself.
What is striking about Bush’s formal portrait is that, aside from a vaguely presidential symbol on the back of the chair and the corner of his desk, there is nothing to indicate that he holds the most powerful political office in the world. This is a remarkable change, a reflection, perhaps, of a man humbled since Liebowitz’s initial photographs. For a president whose policies often exemplified in-your-face hubris, the portrait is remarkably plain.
One object, however, does stand out, and that is the painting within the painting. Hanging on the Oval Office wall over Bush’s right shoulder is one of the former president’s favorite works of art. The art critic Christopher Knight details the story of “A Charge to Keep,” which shows a group of men on horseback racing up a hill. The picture, painted in 1916 by Wilhelm Heinrich Detlev Koerner, has had a couple of lives illustrating different magazine stories. The original story for which the illustration was commissioned was uncovered by the journalist Jacob Weisberg:
The story is about a smooth-talking horse thief who is caught, and then escapes a lynch mob in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The illustration depicts the thief fleeing his captors. In the magazine, the picture bears the caption: “Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught.”
Knight sums up: “Now, thanks to his official portrait, ‘43’ will stare into space for eternity next to a picture of an apparent criminal who is heading for the hills.”
Bush is so fond of the painting that he even titled his 1999 memoir after Koerner’s illustration. According to Weisberg, Bush likened the heroic figure in the painting to the determined attitudes of his cabinet members (as exemplified in Leibovitz’s portrait). Never mind the intent of the artist; the owner and admirer ascribes his own meaning to the action. He is the decider.
One wonders what significance the former president attributes to work of his own creation. At the newly christened George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas, the interactive game “Decision Points” provides some insight into how Bush perceives his real world political machinations. Bradford Pearson of Esquire played the game, choosing the scenario about the decision to invade Iraq:
I barreled through U.N. experts, White House officials, and CIA spooks in the few minutes allotted. (Despite my search there was no Colin Powell clone whispering his Pottery Barn rule, “You break it, you own it.”) After a barrage of BREAKING NEWS — Missile systems! Global protests! — we decided on option two: seek a new U.N. resolution. Bush greeted us on-screen, to tell us how wrong we were in his trademark matter-of-fact way.
“Saddam posed too big a risk to ignore...the world was made safer by his removal.”
Since he left office, Bush has been somewhat reclusive. His public appearances are few and far between and there is little to indicate he wants to pursue a post-presidential career, à la Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and even the senior Bush, George Herbert Walker. Younger Bush appears content to recede from the limelight.
Earlier this year, a bold hacker published personal information and images obtained from six e-mail accounts belonging to the Bush family and friends. In one photograph we see Bush in his gym painting, wearing khaki shorts and a baseball cap, touching up an idyllic church scene. The easel is set amongst exercise machines. Not exactly an ideal art studio, but Bush, whom we only see from behind, is deeply engaged in the task. Another photograph reveals a decent portrait of his beloved dog (it’s boldly signed "43"). These two images, however, are merely interesting. Two other revelations had art critics in a tizzy.
Bush has apparently painted two portraits of himself in the bathroom—one in the bathtub and the other in the shower. The representations are odd. In the bathtub image, we see only his knees and feet poking out of the water at the other end of the tub. The artist’s perspective is jarring not because it’s unrecognizable—we’ve all experienced similar views—but because one cannot help but picture a naked Bush reclining in the tub with, perhaps, an easel or sketch pad resting on his bare chest.
The shower painting is even more disconcerting. We see only his muscular back and catch a glimpse of his face in the mirror. The reflection is too small to discern much personality. What makes this painting peculiar is the misaligned angle of Bush’s head and the mirror—the sight lines don’t match up. It appears as if the disembodied painter is staring back at us through the mirror.
Both compositions are demarcated by strong horizontal and vertical lines. The paintings are flatly colored and two dimensional. The misaligned angle in the shower painting is the only technical problem I can see with both paintings. Even then, the odd perspective adds something … but what? The charm of an unskilled painter? Or is it deeper—a painful loneliness? We must remember that as president, Bush was never alone: Secret Service agents followed him absolutely everywhere he went, except for one place. Today, perhaps, the bathroom portraits are reflective of the only place Bush feels a sense of privacy.
The bathtub painting recalls David Hockney’s 1960s depictions of swimming pools. In Hockney’s work, we see the outlines of the length of a pool, much like the length of Bush’s typical-looking bathtub. Where Hockney uses the diving board as central focus for the eye, Bush inserts his legs and feet. Similarly, both Hockney’s and Bush’s paintings end abruptly in a wall or hedges at the other end of the water. There is no distance, only the immediacy of the still water. The scenes are contained and tranquil.
Even Hockney was no stranger to the shower painting, as evidenced by the straightforwardly titled “Man in the Shower in Beverly Hills” (1964). Here, as in Bush’s self portrait, the water runs over the back of a man whose face is obscured. Unlike Bush’s shower painting, Hockney includes furniture and décor in the foreground and background to disrupt the composition. Bold, metallic blues for the tile work make the painting pop in colorful modernity. In contrast, Bush’s shower painting is dominated by bland tapioca, beige, and grey colors. There is no life in Bush’s bathroom.
In Bush’s portraits, the only movement comes from running water. Does running water represent the meditative thunder of a waterfall? Does it represent a Biblical cleansing? To return to Hockney, the only sign of movement in some of his work is also moving water (e.g., here, here, here, etc.). Has Bush studied Hockney?
It is also not lost on the viewer that Bush is naked in his portraits. “To be naked is to be oneself,” says John Berger. “To be naked is to be without disguise.” If Bush is naked, then he is unprotected. Vested in the power of the Oval Office, President Bush simultaneously invited respect, scorn, and ridicule. Naked, Artist Bush is defenseless and assailable. By letting us glimpse his skin and imagine what remains unseen, he becomes more human. In his human vulnerability one senses a quiet desperation. Only the rushing water calms the storm in his mind.
In the bathroom paintings the sad isolation is akin to the solitude of an Edward Hopper painting. Hopper was a master at capturing moments of quiet desperation, where it seems that in the moment just after the painting, the subject would lose it and run screaming into the streets, jump out the window, or simply resign to the routine drudgery of daily existence. Like Bush, Hopper painted the brooding nude, where the doleful mindset was left to the viewer’s interpretation. And so, like Hopper’s work, Bush’s art invites lengthy contemplation.
Unlike Hopper’s paintings, however, there is no window, no indication of anything outside Bush’s world. By offering neither physical nor mental outlet, Bush’s claustrophobic portraits deepen the feeling of alienation, aloneness.
With no formal art training, he belongs to the outsider artist camp, which is not the same as being without talent. Bush has a natural artistic ability, that much is clear in his bathroom portraits. But could such a divisive and antagonistic political figure ever find comfort in the broader, liberal arts community? Should artists and critics divorce the politician from the art? Can an individual ever be clearly distinct of an artistic output? No matter the answer, Bush is not likely to find solace in the American urban artscape. He may not even want such comfort. “I’m not interested in generating publicity as a result of my paintings,” he told Charlie Rose.
Bush is not the only high profile politician to turn to painting. The soldier-writer-artist-statesman Winston Churchill produced hundreds of oil paintings, none of which he offered for sale (except for charities) and rarely did he discuss his passion in public. George W. Bush admits to finding inspiration in Churchill’s essay “Painting as a Pastime,” where the 20th century icon gushes about the great joy he finds in the hobby. In the essay, Churchill compares painting to preparing for war:
One begins to see, for instance, that painting is like fighting a battle; and trying to paint a picture is, I suppose, like trying to fight a battle. It is, if anything, more exciting than fighting it successfully. But the principle is the same. It is the same kind of problem, as unfurling along sustained, interlocked argument. It is a proposition which, whether of a few or numberless parts, is commanded by a single unity of conception.1
Painting, for Bush, is a battle he prefers to fight without the assistance of cadre of bold advisers. His only guide is a tutor who teaches Bush once per week. For the rest of his time, Bush spends as much as three hours every day at the easel. As Christopher Knight suggested, 43 may have run for the hills, but his self-portraits indicate he has run so far he is alone.
- 1. Winston Churchill. “Painting as a Pastime” (Cornerstone Library, 1965): 19.