Fine Art
4:00 pm
Fri April 4, 2014

From Stick Figures To Portraits, Bush Frees His Inner Rembrandt

Originally published on Tue April 15, 2014 3:26 pm

Former President George W. Bush worked with many world leaders while in office. Now, he's unveiling 24 portraits he painted of some of them. As Lauren Silverman of KERA reports, the exhibit will be at his new presidential library.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Here in Dallas this weekend, two dozen portraits of world leaders painted by former President George W. Bush will go on exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Since leaving office, the former president has spent time developing his artistic side, painting everything from his beloved dog Barney to self-portraits. But this is the first time he's put together an exhibit. Lauren Silverman of Dallas member station KERA got a sneak peek.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Like many artists, President Bush started with stick figures - on his iPad, not a canvas. After that, he moved on to more complex portraits of his pets. Then he found a teacher in Dallas.

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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I said I'm thinking about painting. She said, what's your objective? And I said, there's a Rembrandt trapped in this body.

JAY LENO: Right. Wow. Well, so...

BUSH: Your job is to find it.

SILVERMAN: That's Bush on "Jay Leno" last November when his newfound pastime went public after a hacker posted images of his paintings online, including a self-portrait in a bathtub. Immediate reaction was harsh. The online site Gawker called the paintings awkward and simple. But some respected art critics like Jerry Saltz with New York Magazine saw sincerity in his work.

JERRY SALTZ: All the glitches, the mistakes in his work, the kind of endearing amateurism makes the work have a certain resonance.

SILVERMAN: That resonance is on full display in Dallas at the Bush Center. The new exhibit is called "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy." On "The Today Show" this morning, Bush was interviewed by his daughter Jenna. He admitted no one expected a gallery show with his signature 43 on the backs of dozens of paintings.

BUSH: I paint a lot because, as you know, I'm driven person, and I want to get better. A whole new world has opened up.

SILVERMAN: Crayon-colored oil portraits of 30 world leaders hang in simple black frames next to artifacts and gifts from their homelands. There are the faces of friends and rivals. One of Bush's favorites is his portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

BUSH: I met with him a lot during the presidency. I got to know him very well. I had a good relationship throughout. It became more tense as time went on.

SILVERMAN: Bush says he wanted to make Putin's cold, blue eyes resonate, and they do on a mauve background. Mat Gleason, a critic and curator in Los Angeles, says Bush's paintings of other leaders are revealing.

MAT GLEASON: It's one thing for George Bush to paint a self-portrait in the bathtub or a painting of a dog, but to actually paint other people, I don't believe that an artist can edit out what they really feel.

SILVERMAN: And Bush's affection for his good friend Tony Blair comes across in the portrait of a man smiling. There's also the Dalai Lama's sweet grin and gold and maroon robe. Bush discovered his inner artist through Winston Churchill, who spent hours at the easel and compared painting a picture to fighting a battle. In just two years, Bush has fought more than two dozen battles with oil paint in his mancave-turned-art-studio. And you get the feeling he painted with haste. Again, art critic Mat Gleason.

GLEASON: Ironically, you know, the art world today is very open to people who don't have a mastery of technique. And so maybe much like the political field, you don't have to be the most polished politician, and you can be a little raw around the edges and still get your message across.

SILVERMAN: The president's message may not be political, but it's certainly a glimpse into the world as seen through one American leader's eyes. The exhibit opens to the public Saturday at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas.

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BLOCK: Today is our last day in Texas. The week took an unexpected turn after Wednesday's shooting at Fort Hood. We pushed off some of the stories we had in the works, and we expect to bring them to you next week.

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BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block in Dallas.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel in Washington, D.C. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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