Since he left office, former President George W. Bush has devoted part of his free time to painting – everything from his dog Barney to self-portraits. A year after a hacker revealed some of his works-in-progress, Bush had his first real art show Friday at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.
The exhibit, titled "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy," opens to the public Saturday. It features portraits of 24 world leaders, including Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin and the Dalai Lama.
But before the big reveal, Bush, who has taken up oil painting, talked with daughter Jenna Bush Hager about the exhibit on NBC's "Today" Friday. The portraits were unveiled to the press at the Bush library Friday morning.
"I think they're going to be (like), 'Wow, George Bush is a painter,''' Bush told his daughter. "I'm sure when they heard I was painting, and if they had, they're going to say, 'Wow, I look forward to seeing a stick figure he painted of me.'
"I hope they take it in the spirit in which these were painted in,” Bush said. “That was the spirit of friendship and that I admire them as leaders and was willing to give it a shot in terms of getting people to see how I felt about them."
The 43rd president has also painted images of animals and landscapes as well as self-portraits like the one of Bush in the shower looking at himself in the mirror that was leaked by a hacker last year.
"I was annoyed,'' Bush said about the paintings released by the hacker. "It's an invasion of one's privacy. And yeah, I was annoyed. And nor do I want my paintings to get out. And I found it very interesting the first painting that came out was the one I painted of myself in the bathtub. I did so because I wanted to kind of shock my instructor.
The former president’s art exhibit will explore the relationships that Bush forged with world leaders to shape international policy. “Portraits will be accompanied by artifacts, photographs, and personal reflections to help illustrate the stories of relationships formed on the world stage,” the library says.
His art keeps coming up in the news. Last November, Bush gave Jay Leno a portrait of the talk show host. Then, during the holidays, the Bush Center sold a cardinal ornament painted by the former president.
Bonnie Flood helped teach Bush how to paint. He has probably painted around 50 dog portraits and that he signs his masterpieces "43," the artist told WAGA-TV in Atlanta. But Bush has moved beyond painting dogs, and Flood praised him for his landscape scenes.
What do the art critics think?
Before the world leader portraits were unveiled, KERA’s Lauren Silverman talked with two art critics to get their thoughts about the former president's artistic style:
Bush’s style is “awkward and simple in an interesting way,” said Jerry Saltz, senior art critic with New York magazine. “All the glitches, the endearing amateurism, makes the work have a certain resonance and when you add that resonance to the person who’s painting them, [it] adds another meaning that is interesting to me as a critic.”
Saltz compared Bush to Winston Churchill, another world leader who dabbled in art.
“George Bush’s paintings are more interesting than Winston Churchill’s seascapes and stilllifes because of the strange awkward and emptiness that lies at the core of his work," Saltz told KERA. "Churchill painted much more conventional themes in much more conventional ways and therefore his work has much less personality than Bush’s work.”
But Saltz acknowledged others will feel differently.
“I’m sure his fans will see greatness in that work, and you know what? Art is subjective, they could be right.”
“It’s more sophisticated than what I would have given him credit for,” Gleason told KERA. “His technique is almost amateurish and raw. But the critical thing that he does that’s sophisticated is the cropping. Most tend to put it in the center of the canvas, always centering on something.”
He thinks the world leader portraits will be an interesting change from what Bush had been painting.
“It’s one thing for George Bush to paint a self-portrait or a bathtub, or a painting of a dog, but to paint others, I don’t believe an artist can edit out what they feel. So we can look a little deeper here. I’m excited he’s tackling the subject matter.”
In a way, Bush’s art career reflects his political career, Gleason said.
“Ironically, the art world today is very open to people who don’t have a mastery of technique," Gleason said. "So maybe, much like the political field, you don’t have to be the most polished politician and if anyone proved that it was George Bush coming on the heels of Bill Clinton. That you can be a little raw around the edges and still get your message across. And the art world is very accepting of that. Ironically, the art world is probably the least accepting of Bush’s ideological view, but his art fits completely into the contemporary art world of getting something out there rather than polishing it or worrying about the craft of it.”
"A Rembrandt trapped in this body"
During Bush’s appearance on Jay Leno’s show, he talked about his budding painting career. He took lessons from Gail Norfleet, a Dallas artist. “There’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body,” Bush told her. “Your job is to find it.” Leno showed paintings that Bush made of his dog, Barney, and Bob the cat.
“I do take painting seriously – it’s changed my life,” Bush told Leno.
Here’s part of Leno’s interview with Bush:
Laura Bush on her husband's art
Last spring, NPR's David Greene talked with former first lady Laura Bush about the new presidential library in Dallas, life after the White House -- and her husband's art.
GREENE: Your husband has kept a pretty low profile since leaving office. But one thing that's gotten some attention recently is his new hobby, painting.
GREENE: How did that come about?
BUSH: Well, he was looking for a pastime and he got an app on his iPad where he could draw pictures. He communicated with me if I was on the road, and with Barbara and Jenna, with funny drawings.
GREENE: He's drawing the pictures to send you while you're out there on the road?
BUSH: Yeah. Like he would draw a picture of himself in bed with Barney and the cat.
GREENE: Did you see a burgeoning artist or did you think he needed some work?
BUSH: Well, we did think they were really pretty good. I mean we thought they had a lot of personality and a lot of action. And then he was looking for something to do and he chatted with John Lewis Gaddis, who is a presidential historian, and he said why don't you read Churchill's book "Painting as a Pastime," so he works at painting and paints for a few hours every day.
GREENE: Are we going to see any of the paintings in the museum?
BUSH: No. None of the paintings are in the museum now, but maybe if he gets better than we can use it.
GREENE: If he gets better at it.
BUSH: Yeah. Sometime.