People were quick to judge the paintings of former President George W. Bush. At the time the exhibition The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy opened three years ago, the first public display of his work, many reviews centered more on the policies and decisions the president made while in office, forgoing discussion on the quality of his paintings. If the paintings were addressed, they were either a tertiary element of the critique or dismissed and mocked outright. Now, the President is once again exhibiting his paintings in Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, on display at the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU. With this show, unlike his previous one, the decisions the president made while in office, and the impact they had on his subjects, are inescapable.
Portraits of Courage features 98 paintings by President Bush, each depicting a veteran that he personally met. Like the portraits of world leaders in The Art of Leadership, each picture in Portraits of Courage is painted from a photograph rather than a live model, something that will undoubtedly make art teachers bristle. While there are similarities between the two exhibitions, the execution of the new paintings is a dramatic departure from those three years ago.
President Bush has grown significantly as a painter. Earlier, his approach to painting was timid. It was grounded more in realistic, palette-appropriate depictions of his subjects. Although there were notes of abstraction and instances where it looked as though he was channeling the grotesque figures of Lucian Freud, he didn’t allow himself to commit completely to experimentation and expression. He still may not be committed to full-blown abstraction, but President Bush has embraced it on a scale that wasn’t seen in his previous work. His canvases are rich with color and impasto paint, reminiscent of the post-impressionists. His stylistic decisions breathe life into his current work.
In the first gallery dedicated to painting, the exhibition opens with a video message from the president. A large canvas greets viewers on the left wall. It’s a portrait of Sgt. William J. Ganem, a former Marine. Unlike nearly all of the other work on display in the show, or in his oeuvre in general, this portrait features a detailed background setting. Ganem sits in a high-backed chair with a bright geometric pattern next to a window. While the chair isn’t the focus of the piece, it dominates the frame and helps lay the foundation for Bush’s evolved style with its bold color, broad brushstrokes, and thick paint application, creating a depth and texture to the picture.
The following room contains smaller, more intimate portraits. Those of Sgt. Robert K. Leonard, Staff Sgt. Dan Nevins, Lance Corporal Adam Jahnke, and Lt. Col. David Haines are particularly striking. They range from a more realistic depiction of the sitter, Leonard, to that of Haines, who the president portrays as just a head floating in on the canvas, a style that wouldn’t be out of place in work by Egon Schiele.
Closing the exhibition is the largest work that the President has shown to date, a four-panel canvas titled Mural of America’s Armed Forces. This piece features the portraits of 35 men and women who served in the military, their faces popping forth from an otherwise olive-green background.
As a whole, Portraits of Courage is a moving exhibition. The way in which the President paints shows a deep reverence for his subjects. Each brushstroke and each shade of paint becomes important to telling the story of the sitter, adding a depth of character to the painting. Bush is quick to point out that he’s a novice painter when talking about his work, but there’s a simple beauty in his amateurism. These paintings might not hold the same emotional impact if he were a professional. And that’s what the show it ultimately about: Emotion.
From the veneration our service members receive, to their commander in chief painting them, to the patriotic music filling the galleries, this show intentionally creates an emotional ambiance. Its impact is made deeper with the knowledge that each man and woman painted by the president had their lives forever altered by his decisions in office. The exhibition does address this. In the opening video, Bush discusses drawing awareness to the struggles veterans face because of their experiences in combat, both visible and invisible injuries like post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. There is also a closing video to the exhibition urging service members to seek help if they are suffering from the effects of combat. Further, the net proceeds from the companion book will go to the Military Service Institute at the Bush Institute, which focuses on addressing these issues.
Even with the work the president and his institute are doing, the lives of the veterans he painted and those of many more are irreversibly changed. Prosthetic limbs and other injuries feature prominently in the paintings. They’re a constant reminder of how policy decisions in the Oval Office can affect the lives of thousands. It’s clear that Bush has a deep respect and compassion for these men and women, but ultimately Portraits of Courage serves as a powerful reminder of the sacrifices made by service members and the tragedy of war.