George W. Bush’s Newest Portraits Are Political
The amateur painter still shows an eye for spin.
The first portrait presented in former U.S. President George W. Bush’s new and second art book, Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants, is probably his best. Showing Joseph Kim, a young man who came to the United States as a North Korean refugee, the painting exhibits many formal qualities that Bush has shown in his past portraits of veterans and world leaders. The canvas presents a tightly cropped image of the subject’s head rendered with thick, visible brushwork in bright colors. There is, however, a depth in the lavender shading of Kim’s face, the unblended orange of his collared shirt, and the sensitivity of his gaze out of the canvas and away from the viewer that defies the flatness typical of many of Bush’s works in earlier publications and throughout Out of Many, One.
Part of the two-dimensionality of the former president’s work can be attributed to process: despite having met most of his subjects (and in some cases knowing them quite well), he typically paints from photographs. Kim’s portrait is no exception to this approach; however, Bush’s text about the young man hints at why this portrait feels so much more complex. “Joseph’s office is just downstairs from mine at the Bush Institute, where he works as an assistant and expert in residence in our Human Freedom Initiative.” While this proximity made it “easy to get his photo,” it also indicates that Bush, when he has regular access to his subjects, is capable of painting works that show at least a glimmer of engagement with his stated artistic influences, which include Lucian Freud and “the Impressionists.”
Ultimately, however, the point of Out of Many, One—an English translation of the national motto “e pluribus unum”—is not to show Bush’s artistic prowess, nor is it really about the artworks themselves. By choosing portraiture—and in particular themed groups of portraits of world leaders, military veterans, and now immigrants—Bush is diving headfirst into subject matter that begs for political interpretation. He is, in effect, able to comment on political issues by selecting his subjects and telling their stories. Yet, protected behind an easel, he can simultaneously claim to be simply engaging in a new aesthetic and apolitical pastime. It is an elegant solution for a past president who still has political opinions (part of his presidential center includes the George W. Bush Institute, which publishes policy recommendations) but wants to appear above the fray.
As art historian Kim Grant carefully documented in a scholarly article, Bush has learned to expertly martial his retirement hobby into a way to rehabilitate his public image. He has charmed people with his seemingly naive dedication to an aesthetic and gentle pastime unexpected in a president who started two wars and was known for macho activities like clearing brush on his ranch. However, as Grant writes, “Bush is an amateur painter, but he is an expert in public relations, image making, and the media.” With this context in mind, Bush the portrait painter seems to be an extension of the folksy, misspeaking, nickname-loving persona that powered Bush to two terms in the White House.
The clear links between the 43rd president’s political past and his artistic present can be traced even to the origin story he provides about his decision to take up painting. He credits Winston Churchill’s 1948 book Painting as a Pastime for giving him the idea. In the book, the famed British prime minister describes how painting can provide both an escape for a statesman used to living under extreme pressure and a new kind of mental stimulus for someone leaving a position that requires constant processing of information. Churchill argues for making art an ideal retirement project. Accordingly, his work is decidedly apolitical. The illustrations in Painting as Pastime show anodyne depictions of flowers in vases and landscapes with calming features like babbling brooks and the serene waters of Italian lakes.
Bush has departed significantly from Churchill’s advice and example. Audiences may be expecting to view Bush’s artwork as an apolitical hobby because they are accustomed to seeing political art from the left rather than the right. As Grant writes, “Social activist art is typically associated with liberal causes and mobilizing opposition to established interests and controls.” However, the former president is engaging in precisely this tradition: activist art. It just happens to be from a right-wing position that appears relatively moderate in the extremist post-President Donald Trump world.
The combination of relative moderation, the potential bipartisan appeal of immigration reform, and brightly colored, amateurish, and naturalistic portraiture camouflages the political nature of the work. In this sense, Out of Many, One is more successful than Bush’s last series of portraits and the book celebrating them: Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors (2017). This group of paintings featured veterans who fought and were injured in the same controversial, deadly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Bush started and presided over. The portraits were intended to pay homage to their subjects—to share their stories of courage, hardship, and resilience. The painful irony of Bush choosing to paint people he had commanded into the line of fire was lost on no one in the book’s reviews, except possibly the artist himself. Peter Schjeldahl’s reaction in the New Yorker sums up many critical responses to the work: “Having obliviously made murderous errors, Bush now obliviously atones for them. What do you do with someone like that?”
Bush has learned his lesson for this new book. He failed to reform the U.S. immigration system during his time in office. Therefore, the direct impact of his presidential policies on any of his subjects is limited—although Medal of Honor winner and French American Florent Groberg was severely injured in Afghanistan, and one portrait features an Iraqi translator for the U.S. military who participated in a deeply flawed visa program started in 2006. With that said, the same translator legally changed his name to Tony George Bush when he naturalized as a U.S. citizen. He appears to be an unequivocal fan of the former president.
The charming earnestness and intense patriotism demonstrated by Tony George Bush and his mother, Layla, (they feature in a double portrait) is really the point of Out of Many, One. Page after page are full of moving stories of immigrants—some of whom survived extreme trauma—finding new, successful lives in the United States and becoming self-made star citizens. From CEOs such as Indra Nooyi to Nigerian-born NASA wunderkind Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, they represent an ideal of the American dream as providing the chance to seize opportunities and capitalize on talent.
There are, however, two notable themes that occur throughout the stories told: God (often, but not exclusively, a Christian God) and Texas. The quote featured across from Texas resident Kim’s striking portrait sets the tone for the entire book: “The first Bible verse I read was Matthew, chapter eleven, verse twenty-eight: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’” There is also, for example, the heartbreaking, trauma-filled story of Rwandan American Jeanne Celestine Lakin. She has since founded a charity that is dedicated “to carry on her parents’ teaching and support God’s children around the world.” Burundian American running coach Gilbert Tuhabonye was nearly killed for being the child of a Catholic Tutsi Family. He rediscovered God on the 10th anniversary of his surviving the genocidal attack and went on to inspire the president’s daughter Jenna Bush to run “a little bit faster” by yelling, “Jenna, God is good!” during morning workouts. Both Lakin and Tuhabonye live in Texas, like many of the other subjects, including most of the Muslim portrait-sitters.
Some of this bias toward God-fearing Texans of all origins is likely because Bush has met many of his subjects. He often describes meeting them through events at his presidential center in Dallas or, in the case of Mexican American Paula Rendon, while she worked in the homes of his parents George H.W. and Barbara Bush for decades. However, I could not help but feel these choices of people to feature are—intentionally or not—also politically expedient. In their religiosity, geographical location, and patriotism, the book gives the impression that these inspiring, resilient individuals represent the shifting demographics that have recently driven Republican gains among more diverse voters. Bush’s roster of subjects seems designed to appeal to a conservative voter who may be prone to dislike or distrust immigrants as being too different from them or coming to steal American jobs. These exceptional people’s stories not only provoke sympathy and admiration but, as they are written, create a sense that the portraits’ subject could potentially be conservatives, as many would describe themselves: God-loving, hardworking, and not looking for handouts. (In the entry for Cambodian American Thear Suzuki, Bush explicitly mentions that when her family arrived as refugees, they “only needed … food stamps for three months before becoming independent.”) Many of Bush’s portrait subjects could be Republican voters in waiting—so why resist making it easier for them to immigrate, naturalize, and vote?
This is the crux of what Bush may be aiming for in Out of Many, One. As he writes in the acknowledgments, the project began when his former campaign manager asked Bush in 2018 to “get involved in the current immigration debate, the tone and direction of which concerned us both deeply.” Bush demurred, citing precedent on not commenting on successors’ policies, at which point the former campaign manager pivoted and “spoke to the eager painter in me. He suggested that I paint portraits of immigrants to reflect my belief in the positive effects they have on our country.” While the means of the message may be seemingly apolitical—appealingly naive and cheery paintings—Bush’s ultimate goal is to engage with current policy debates. Overall, he has succeeded. He may even change some hearts and minds among those skeptical of immigration who thought they were just buying an art book by a cowboy ex-president. (The book concludes with some policy bullet points under the Bush Institute logo and illuminating flowcharts about the byzantine nature of the U.S. immigration system.)
Bush’s marshaling of oil on canvas to reinsert himself into political debate appears to be part of a trend for past presidents. In addition to creating a policy-focused foundation resembling Bill and Hillary Clinton’s, Barack and Michelle Obama have also recognized that the arts are a valuable vehicle for spreading messages related to their policy positions. While Bush has chosen a decidedly analog artistic medium, the Obamas have gone digital by inking a deal with Netflix to develop fictional and nonfictional films and series. Churchill thought the arts represented the ideal escape for a retired world leader. They may, in fact, be the best way for ex-world leaders to stay relevant.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 print issue.
Diana Seave Greenwald is the assistant curator of the collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and the author of Painting by Numbers: Data-Driven Histories of Nineteenth-Century Art.
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