David and Art - "A Painting President"

May 3, 2021

A former President picks up a paintbrush to say something about current policy.

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Former president George W. Bush has a new book out. It’s not a memoir of his years in the White House nor a book, say, of his correspondence with other world leaders. It’s a collection of portraits that he has painted. You probably already know that he’s an avid amateur painter in the mold of Dwight Eisenhower. Although while Ike preferred to paint landscapes, Bush likes to paint people. He’s titled the book Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants, and the people in each of these portraits are immigrants. “I set out to accomplish two things,” he says of the volume: First, “to share some portraits of immigrants, each with a remarkable story I try to tell;” and second, to “humanize the debate on immigration and reform.”

Immigrants from all over the globe make up the faces in the book. Some are famous—there’s a couple Secretaries of State in these pages as well as a sports star or two. Most of the others are more anonymous.

A rather unfriendly review in the magazine Art in America calls Bush’s painting style inelegant. And it is, one supposes, but the review is as much about Bush’s political positions as about his art. It compares Bush’s style of painting to a school called expressionism but notes that “expressionist artists deliberately refused to be tethered to the rigidity of realism,” particularly in color and the visibility of their brush strokes. No one would mistake an expressionist portrait (or one of Bush’s) for photorealism. “Bush, by contrast,” says the reviewer, “would probably love to paint realistically, if only he could. His portraits carry an air of maddening childishness.”

Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, in which the former President recently had an op-ed about immigration policy, wryly notes that Bush’s book has brought out the inner art critic in quite a few of the Post’s readers.

Behind this all however is the assumption on the part of the former President that, through his art, a deeper meaning can be conveyed to his viewer. He understands that what he’s doing doesn’t involve showing you precisely how Madeline Albright, Dirk Nowitzki, or anyone else, looks. He seeking commonality, not individualism.

In his remark about humanizing the debate over immigration, Bush gets very close to what portraits themselves do. They are meant to convey to the viewer the humanity of the subject--at the same moment showing a distinct and unique individual, along with an another representation of the human race who shares something very basic with us all.