I want to talk about two paintings, “Artist in the Shower” and “Artist in the Bath,” by the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush. They were revealed when the former POTUS's e-mail was hacked.
by Jon Bailiff
The public commentary has thus far veered from breezy put-downs to earnest attempts to fit The Artist Bush into “Painting,” per se. These observations, though interesting and fun, mean or edifying, don’t offer the viewing I think his efforts deserve.
I’m a painter and an art teacher. I propose that our encounter with the former President represents a teachable moment beyond media splash.
Creativity, the effort to make something of one’s own sensations from raw reality, is a singular human impulse. It is creative self-expression.
Pop cultural icons with their professional poses keep our attention on the meta-level where creativity is concerned. The act of personal creation appears daunting. Most adults today no longer even try.
Yet I’ve encouraged children, teens, and adults, both apparently able and profoundly disabled, to face the void, the blank canvas. —To make a mark that is their own. It is a transformative experience every time.
Each of us is laid bare in the act of creative self-expression. Ex-presidents included. I respect W’s efforts at creation. I understand his motivation. I draw a great deal of information from his marks.
His self-portraits of his own naked body, photographed on the easel in intimate studio light, in the shower, in the bath, depict deep motivation. Motivation enough to take real risks for a chance at fulfillment. —That the public is sharing his pictures now shows just how high the risks were.
Bush takes on anatomy, likeness, spatial representation, foreshortened perspective, light effects, water— with the limited skills at his disposal. That speak volumes to me. He's compelled to grasp for something beyond his means as a beginner.
This is the first step in becoming, committing, and acknowledging the need to make art. Not for the sake of hobby. Not for the thin gruel of other’s opinions. But for one’s own self.
The intimacy of one’s toilette, the unvarnished truth of the mirror, and the nakedness of the bath, are sources for many accomplished painters. Pierre Bonnard’s late-life images in the mirror of his toilette spring to mind (Portrait de l’artiste dans la glace du cabinet de toilette-1945).
I doubt that George W. Bush has awareness of art history. I take it that his inspiration comes directly form his own self-conscious experience.
Yet he links himself instantly with the likes of Bonnard, Alice Neel, Edward Hopper, Lucian Freud, and many others— not by ability, but by desire. A desire that, if fed, if followed, could lead him— could lead any of us— to real substance.
And here we have the teachable moment. The man who hid behind the glib signature “43” on his far less ambitious “Portrait of Barney” (his dog) might decide to come forward and embrace the honesty of his sophomore painting efforts. Then he could offer his countrymen something he never did as President —an embrace of the human worth in all of us, not just in himself.
That glance held within the shaving mirror, furtively contemplating the contours of his own flesh with imperfect memory, could be a clear-eyed gaze that celebrates the transformative power of artistic impulse— and offers the freedom of contemplation to all.
Not many Americans, not many people, have the opportunity to experience making art. Such a level of societal and personal freedom is so rare it is perceived as audacious, eccentric. That understanding is false. Self-expression and freedom-- these aren't commodities to be only traded by the rich, performed by the chosen, and parceled out to the few-- they are our birthright.
We have met George W. Bush the Artist. We are free to say what we will of his creative efforts. But I would argue we are seeing a spark, a moment of creative self-expression. One worthy of emulation. For if this audacious act is within his grasp, it most assuredly is within ours.