had been an art-agnostic all my life,” George W. Bush reveals in his newest book, but art-atheist might be closer to the mark. Until five years ago, he was as innocent of painting and sculpture as one could be. Even as president, Bush kept a wide berth from the visual arts, steering the National Endowment for the Arts to poetry and to Shakespeare. But then the world caught its first glimpse of Bush’s oil paintings of world leaders and, to the bewilderment of practically everyone, they were creditable.
Not only creditable, but ambitious. In Portraits of Courage, the former president now pays tribute in remarkable fashion to the soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan during his presidency. It consists of oil paintings, some of them deeply moving, of 98 wounded veterans he met through his Warrior Open golf tournament and his hundred-kilometer bicycle races.
Bush, it must be said at the outset, is a painter of conspicuous limitations. His work lumbers with the gawkiness of the beginner, who must substitute diligence for innate talent. There is also that inescapable stiffness that comes from working from photographs. And yet while most beginners are uncertain, Bush’s weaknesses derive from a kind of impetuousness. His paintings quiver with kinetic energy, suggesting the furious visible brushwork of the Ash Can School but also something of the nervous agitation of German Expressionism.
It is not a stretch to use these terms, as Bush has quietly been making himself conversant with the great painters of the past, in part through the Museum of Modern Art’s online art history course. He even lists some of the artists whose work he has closely studied, including Andrew Wyeth, Lucien Freud, even Wayne Thiebaud, the Pop artist from whom, ironically, Bush seems to have learned the most. In Portraits of Courage we see these influences distilled into a distinctive personal style. But it is not strictly as artistic performances that these portraits challenge us, for they are suspended somewhere between traditional portraiture and political art in a way that the world has never quite seen.
ush came to painting in 2012, a time he says he was growing “antsy” in retirement and searching for a new challenge. This he found in Painting as Pastime, Winston Churchill’s lively memoir of his pleasure in landscape painting. Bush decided to give it a try, and Laura Bush, clearly bemused, put him in touch with Gail Norfleet, a Texas painter. Norfleet had no use for presidential deference. Much like the brusque voice coach who would cure George VI’s stuttering in The King’s Speech, she treated him as any other pupil: “Just paint the cube, George,” she ordered at his first lesson.
The truth is, there is no other way to do it. Painting is one of those practices, like dentistry or the violin, that can only be passed on through personal mentoring. And unless there is receptivity on the part of the student, a certain humility and surrender of ego, there is no advance. (This is why student-athletes, who are used to taking direction from coaches, often flourish in painting classes and outstrip the classroom prodigies, to the surprise of both.)
Until a few years ago Bush, much like Churchill, had painted whatever was around him, which in Bush’s guileless inventory we learn consisted of “cacti, waterlilies, hats.” But he was galvanized by a stray comment from one of his subsequent instructors. He “suggested I paint people whom I knew but others didn’t.” At once he thought of productively combining his painting hobby with his charitable program of outreach to wounded veterans. He began work on Portraits of Courage in September 2015, and with a daunting timetable. He committed himself to completing, in effect, two large canvases (most measure 48 by 60 inches) each week, and working at it for an entire year. Besides the portraits themselves, he wrote a short personal account of the veterans, describing their service, their injury, and the course of their recovery, which is when he came to know them and their families. These capsule biographies amount to a social history of the wars that followed the attacks of September 11, as seen from a soldier’s eye view, and they are rich in specific detail.
For one thing, we learn how many of them volunteered for the military after those attacks. One was Melissa Stockwell, a sophomore at the University of Colorado who promptly joined the ROTC and was in Iraq for only three weeks when her convoy ran into an IED. We learn she was the first woman to lose a leg in combat during the war. There is an affecting painting as she danced with a beaming Bush, the only self-portrait in the book.
It is startling to see how many of Bush’s subjects were the victims of roadside bombs and have lost limbs or suffered traumatic brain injury as a result. Here they differ from the wounded of World War I, where trench warfare often meant facial injuries. Bush does not flinch from their injuries or prettify them. We see their prosthetic arms and legs, glass eyes, facial burns, and other disfigurements—which does not prevent them from playing golf, a frequent theme in this book.
Bush has found his natural métier in the technique known as direct painting, in which paint is applied in palpable, thick brushstrokes, rather than in transparent layered glazes. One loses the subtlety and richness of overlapping veils of color, but in exchange one gets a richer sense of churning action on the surface. It is a technique peculiarly suited for highly physical painters, such as George Bellows, a baseball player-turned-painter whose work is surprisingly similar to Bush’s. But the drawback with this technique is that it does not work happily with photographs. It is fundamentally sculptural, a way of boldly modeling a three-dimensional solid with broad strokes of light and shade. But photographs, no matter how detailed, are inherently flat—and not only physically. A painter sees a bit more of each side of the subject with each of his two eyes, which is what gives us our sense of three-dimensionality. The beginning student tends to bound objects with a strong line but in reality there are no sharp edges around the things we see, only the hazy recession into space.
Given this fundamental weakness, it is remarkable how successful some of Bush’s portraits are, and how fresh and animated. By not seeking to reproduce the literal photograph but using it as the point of departure to depict the personality of someone he has met, Bush proves to have been well served by his technique. Particularly memorable is his portrait of Sergeant Scott Alan Adams, a bullet-headed colossus with the face of a professional wrestler, mouth open in mid-taunt. Also strong is Lance Corporal Timothy John Lang, who smiles conspiratorially, his hair slicked straight up, and looking vaguely reminiscent of Bush himself. Both heads are well modeled in a thick impasto, recording the ridge of the brow and the curve of the cheekbone in vigorous contour lines. Like most of the portraits in this book, the backgrounds are quite competent (an underrated skill).
In every respect then, this is a competent portfolio of portraits by a determined and particularly apt student, who has improved mightily since he first painted his cartoonish portraits of Vladimir Putin and other world leaders he met. If that were all Portraits of Courage was, then it would merely be an item of presidential trivia, like Truman’s piano playing or Teddy Roosevelt’s boxing. As it happens, it is rather more than that. And so the only president ever to have earned an MBA is also the only one to take up painting in a serious way.
lthough refers to Churchill’s painting hobby, it does not tell us when it began. In fact, it was 1915, after he led the British navy into a horrifying debacle in the battle at Gallipoli. He felt an acute need for a soothing non-intellectual activity. Characteristically, he found one that was active and physical and that also demanded absolute concentration. One hardly needs Freud to see the same motives at work in Bush. But while Churchill’s painting was a refuge from his greatest failure, Bush’s is a deliberate and unsparing confrontation with those aspects of his presidency that haunt him most.
Obviously the Bush Institute, which devotes the lion’s share of its resources to post-9/11 veterans, was created out of a strong sense of personal obligation to those the president sent into combat. But evidently Bush felt that he owed more than fundraising and upbeat sporting events, activities that can be performed with absolute emotional detachment. Instead, he chose to impose on himself something that permitted no emotional buffering but required a personal engagement with specific and intimate instances of human suffering. The harrowing undertow beneath these portraits is essential to their redemptive mission, something that seems to have come naturally to Bush, who is after all a daily Bible reader.
There is a hallowed tradition of artists showing the horrors of war, from Goya’s nightmarish Disasters of War to the frenzied expressionism of Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, and Ludwig Kirchner. But in nearly every instance, the broken figures represented were not actual individuals but artistic symbols of the horrific nature of war itself. It is the intimate and itemized nature of Bush’s encounter with his subjects that marks a break with the Western tradition of painting. The more time one spends with Portraits of Courage, the more one realizes that it is not the physical disfigurements that disturb but the inner trauma we read in the haunted faces. It is unclear how much of this trauma derives from Bush’s reference photographs and how much he unconsciously imposed because of his personal acquaintance with the subjects. But it is clear that he is keenly aware of the extent to which the portraits convey anguish.
In one of the book’s more affecting passages, he describes the horrific incident in which Major Christopher Andrew Turner was shot by a supposedly friendly Afghan guard, whose own Allied-provided body armor made him almost impossible to kill. Bush first painted a gaunt and troubled veteran, with vacant eyes and a distressingly skeletal grin, but later, as Turner recovered from post-traumatic stress, he painted him a second time, showing a man at peace with himself. Bush drew a great deal of ridicule in 2001 when he said about Vladimir Putin, “I looked the man in the eye . . . I got a sense of his soul.” The episode is revealing in hindsight, for it testifies to Bush’s impulse to connect at an instinctive emotional level with those he meets. Whether or not it made for good diplomacy, he has made it an artistic strength.
In the end, Bush’s paintings of wounded warriors should be seen primarily as a devotional rather than an aesthetic act. Here he shows an unexpected affinity with an art movement not normally found honoring military sacrifice: process art. This is that movement based on the patient and methodical repetition of discreet acts in which the performance of the process is more important than the physical object that results. The AIDS Quilt project is the best known of these, an open-ended project that began in 1985 and that continues to absorb new panels, never to achieve definitive form.
Bush has given us a very idiosyncratic answer to that perennial problem of the statesman without a state. Of course, those who believe they are only in temporary exile, on Elba as it were, and remain in the game, as Clinton and Obama have, do not face this problem. But for those who draw a definitive line on public service but remain relatively young and energetic, some work must be done. Nixon wrote history obsessively, Carter built houses as a form of public service—and now Bush has combined the two approaches, giving us an illustrated history of the wars fought under his administration, achieved through a physically demanding campaign of redemptive labor. It is not easy to think of a presidential retirement that is more dignified, or honorable.