“I looked the man in the eye,” said former US president George W Bush about his first meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2001, and, he said, “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Well, if Bush’s recently revealed portrait of the Russian leader is anything to go by, Putin’s soul lies somewhere between his upper lip and the lower curve of his left dimple.
The former president’s paintings – revealed to great fanfare at the George W Bush Presidential Centre in Dallas on Saturday – are, shall we say, an intriguing glance at Bush’s post-White House days. They are, I suppose, a curious experiment in what happens when all the power in the world slips from your grasp and you put a paint brush in its place.
The first painting you see when you enter the The Art of Leadership exhibition is a self-portrait of the great painter himself. It’s quite a sweet picture – broad brushstrokes across the light blue of his suit – his features soft and his expression rather warm.
There’s a folksy charm to these works, some critics have said, and a sincerity that only someone dipping their toes heartily into waters new can achieve. But even Picasso at his Cubist-era zenith would have balked at such an unbridled revision of the human form. And it strikes me as strange that so many of those who have critiqued and commented on these presidential peculiarities have done so with such little sense of fun. Instead, they comment with an earnest determination to make them mean something. A painting should do the talking, the critic should pass on the message. Bush’s portrait of George Bush Senior is a tender tribute from a son to a father. Strength and leadership are clear in the depiction of Angela Merkel.
Never mind that it now seems the former president used Google to source his sitters – these are not thoughtful works. They are, as the New York Times puts it, the work of a “decent amateur”. And journalists shouldn’t try and convince us that they are anything else.
Tomos Lewis is a producer for Monocle 24.