The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy opened to the public on April 5 at the George W. Bush Presidential Library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in the affluent town of Highland Park, a suburb of Dallas, Texas. While Dallas is familiar with the comings and goings of art exhibitions (the city and region are home to well renowned art institutions), there has never been a show quite like this one. Each of the paintings in The Art of Leadership was painted by George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States.
Bush, who now resides in Dallas and can be seen frequenting local sporting events, took up oil painting in 2012 after reading Winston Churchill’s essayPainting as a Pastime. Bush explains this in a short History Channel documentary about his approach to painting, which greets visitors as they wait to enter the exhibition. Visitors in the long queue were treated to several viewings of the repeating video. Some never took their eyes off of the screen while others idly looked at their phones.
There was an audible buzz about the exhibition throughout the library, broken only briefly by talk of the NCAA basketball tournament being held locally. Everyone in attendance was genuinely curious about the president’s paintings and whether or not his earlier works, namely of his dogs or his self-portrait in the shower, would be on display (they weren’t).
The exhibit is comprised of paintings of world leaders the president met during his time in office and are arranged in chronological order of when he met them. Each work is accompanied by a gift or memento that was given to the president by the leader.
Viewers were extremely curious about the gift that accompanied the portrait of former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, a noted Elvis Presley enthusiast. They flocked towards it, bottlenecking an already packed space and asking the nearby gallery attendant to explain what it was. Next to a bow-and-arrow set was an ink drawing caricature of the President Bush riding a horse while drawing a bow and arrow wearing traditional Japanese garb. The levity of the drawing as well as photographs of Bush and Koizumi wearing Elvis-style sunglasses at Graceland was a big drawcard.
Other leaders featured include Bush’s father and former president George H. W. Bush, Tony Blair, the Dalai Lama, John Howard, Jiang Zemin of China, Vladimir Putin, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki among others. The overarching theme of the show is one of personal diplomacy — Bush describes many of the people he painted as friends in the opening documentary. He even notes that some are not friends, though he doesn’t names names. His goal is to capture the essence of, and his relationship with, each individual he paints.
The paintings themselves are rather introspective, and can loosely be described as expressionistic. Expressionism, an early 20th century art movement, focuses on the emotive quality of art rather than capturing physical reality. The canvases feature broad, visible brush strokes with little concern for precision and swaths of block colours occasionally accented with lighter or darker pigments. Clothing is reduced to a simple, depth-less, representation in most of the works, apart from the Dalai Lama’s robe and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s head wrap. Without the distraction of clothing, viewers are forced to focus on the face of the subjects, to become intimately familiar with them.
People were enthralled by Bush’s painting ability and noted the variety in detail in all the work. Many expressed shock that the portraits weren’t bad for someone who only had two years of experience. The style of the portraits range from an almost realistic rendering of Tony Blair to impressionistic representations of both former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel and ex French president Nicolas Sarkozy, to a stylised tonal depiction of Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. The most striking portraits, though, are those of Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and Junichiro Koizumi.
The portrait of Putin depicts him with two tonal regions dominating his face. His large forehead is lighter, almost white, while the bottom portion of his face is a darker pigment that extends to the neck and almost merges with his shirt colour. There are few facial accents except to highlight his almost skeletal bone structure. The focus here is in the eyes. Slightly squinted, they stare out from the canvas looking deep into the viewer. His green irises are cold and calculating. It is an almost haunting experience to look back at the portrait, and many in the gallery were taken aback by the picture’s stark gaze.
In contrast to Putin, the portrait of Merkel is more friendly and open. Her eyes welcome the viewer with a sense of warmth and an almost inquisitive nature. This is accented by her mouth, which displays a slight, perhaps wry, smile that borderlines a subtle smirk.
While these two paintings focus on the internal character of their subjects and how they display it outwardly, the portrait of Koizumi verges on the grotesque. His face appears warped and imbalanced, with his right cheek being almost concave, drawing his right nostril into the collapsing space. The left side of his face, including his ear, seems to be melting as dark streaks flow down and off his face. It is vaguely reminiscent of the tortured figures of Francis Bacon, though this is probably unintentional.
People pointed to details in a range of works throughout the show and tried to extrapolate how Bush had attempted to capture his relationship with the subject of the painting. Each person derived different meaning from the work, but the consensus was that the exhibition was a success and more than simply a presidential novelty.
The Art of Leadership is a rare glimpse into the mind of a president. Through his paintings, Bush provides an intimate look into his life and how he sees his peers. In the opening documentary, he explains that he doesn’t sign many of his paintings because the focus would then be on his signature rather than the subject matter. Nonetheless, the association with the 43rd president is the main draw for every visitor. People wanted to get closer to a man whose actions and legacy affected their lives. It was an opportunity to try to understand him. The queue wrapping the building to get in, despite a steady downpour, is testament to that.