A painting, even from a man with a troubling history, can be innocent, sincere, earnest, and childlike (as art critic for New York magazine, Jerry Saltz called the president’s works). Former president George Bush’s Portraits of Courage certainly are. But unlike Mimi Swartz’s March 21, 2017, New York Times headline, it is far from redemptive.
It would be cynical to call his paintings and his newfound image as an artist, reputation management, even if that ends up being a fringe benefit. There is a lot that can be said in a painting, particularly portraiture. The intimate stair and study of a single individual. Particularly when you know the subjects are the volunteers who felt the full effect of his decisions and commands. But portraits don’t redeem. It is not a mean-spirited statement and would be easy to criticize as a failure to look beyond partisanship.
Mr. Bush discovered what many who paint discover: that as he worked on their portraits, he came to understand his sitters, and their pain, as well as their love for one another.’
– Mimi Swartz
These portraits and his adoption of the arts adds depth to his character. They beautifully add detail and nuance to his experience and relationship to those he commanded. It would be disingenuous to snidely dismiss it. But they don’t contextualize a disastrous and illegal war, sold through propaganda, that transformed our nation, the countries we invaded and the lives of countless civilians (134,000 Iraqi civilians at the least) and the soldiers he commanded.
I give full credit that the president has never, to my knowledge, exulted his endeavors as an attempt at redemption. That he does not feel the need for redemption maybe says more than the paintings ever can. Though there very public existence as a book and fundraiser can’t avoid the redemptive narrative, as Mimi Swartz’s article demonstrates.
I am happy for the president, we find value in a similar passion that enriches our life. These paintings will help add color to how the future contextualizes his legacy, but they don’t change the history.