David Hoppe

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:: George Bush’s paintings

The soul of an ex-president

by David Hoppe

Kurt Vonnegut famously said that doing art “makes your soul grow.” He also observed that President George W. Bush had a “psychopathic personality.” So you can’t help but wonder what Kurt would have made of the news that George has taken up painting.

It seems a hacker managed to find his way into an on-line stream of Bush family communications. Among the things he found there were images. These included a documentary photo of the former POTUS, clad in shorts and a ball cap, daubing at an easel. Better still, the hacker was able to reveal a couple of Bush’s paintings.

W is not the first world leader to pick up a brush. Eisenhower and Churchill were both so-called Sunday painters; Adolf Hitler actually managed to get into art school, where his work found little favor, embittering the would-be aesthete and, according to some, prompting him to take up politics.

As artists, those 20th Century potentates shared a certain conservatism, preferring, for the most part, to paint what they saw in the landscape in front of them. Bush, if the two paintings we’ve seen so far are any indication, is up to something else.

For starters, both paintings are set in a bathroom. The first takes place in a tub. It is painted from the bather’s point of view, so we see a pair of knees jutting up from cloudy water then, further off, two sets of toes propped against the tub’s far wall. A gush of water pours down from the tap; there is a black border immediately around the top of the tub and a beige tile wall above that. A white towel hangs down from the upper edge of the frame.

The second painting is a shower scene. A man, naked from the waist up, stands with his back to us in front of a tile wall, as water falls from a showerhead. A circular shaving mirror hangs from the showerhead and, in it, we see the reflected face of the bather. That face, it is fair to say, bears a more than passing resemblance to the forty-third president of the United States.

These images are composed in a slightly off-kilter, asymmetrical way. The technique is blunt and a little cartoonish, but not exactly primitive. It is sharp-edged and shadowless in a way that recalls David Hockney’s paintings of southern California swimming pool scenes. The more I look at them, the more I have to say that…I kind of like them.

It is impossible to write this without being struck by our national penchant for revisionism when it comes to the lives of ex-presidents. And so Richard Nixon, the man who created the Enemies List and tried to circumvent the Constitution, in his dotage, becomes a visionary diplomat; Jimmy Carter, reviled for being humorless and ineffective during his single term, is now a sage humanitarian; Ronald Reagan’s lies are remembered warmly as the work of a great communicator; Bill Clinton’s sexual shenanigans get redrawn as charisma.

In the matter of George W. Bush, in case we need reminding, we have an ex-prez who took office through Supreme Court fiat, flat-out lied to gin up public support for an unnecessary war in Iraq and presided over bubble-based economic policies that substituted easy credit for real prosperity. If he has been keeping a “low profile” since stepping down, that’s because his presidency can’t stand scrutiny; if he were to travel abroad, there are some countries that might try to arrest him for war crimes.

No wonder the scenes he paints happen in the most private room in the house.

Part of the charm of Bush’s paintings is their intimacy. He is literally stripped bare. For some artists, this is an act of defiance. But that’s not what’s going on here. Rather, Bush seems to be owning up to something we’ve probably known about him from the start.

When Bush first ran for president, it was said he was the kind of guy with whom you could sit and drink a beer. That this hardly qualified him to be leader of the most powerful nation on earth was lost in the shuffle. It helped obscure the fact that he’d been an indifferent student, an absent air national guardsman, and a lack luster businessman whose political success was tee’d up by his fabulously well-connected parents.

Being president seemed an awful prize for Bush. It exaggerated his weaknesses and dwarfed his modest strengths. The terrorist attacks at the beginning of his first term would define his entire presidency, in part because of their horrific nature, but also because of his lack of capacity to lead the country through its state of shock. Our politics still suffers from the delusional thinking that enabled Bush’s two terms.

So while these paintings were seemingly intended only for the eyes of Bush’s family, their public unveiling turns out to be an inadvertent gift. It’s hard to think of another figure of this stature — if stature is the word — to so completely bring his image down to its proper, human scale. For Bush, growing his soul has meant cutting himself down to size.