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The newest portraits of George W. Bush are political

Former US President George W. Bush paints on this undated flyer photo. C.A. Smith Photography for President George W. Bush

The first portrait featured in former President George W. Bush's new and second art book, Out of Many, One: Portraits of America's Immigrants, is probably his best. The painting shows Joseph Kim, a young man who came to the United States as a North Korean refugee. It shows many of the formal qualities that Bush displayed in his previous portraits of veterans and world leaders. The canvas shows a tightly cropped image of the subject's head, rendered in bright colors with a thick, visible brush stroke. There is a depth in the lavender shade of Kim's face, however, the unmixed orange of his collar shirt, and the sensitivity of his gaze off the screen and away from the viewer that defies the flatness typical of many of Bush's earlier publications and in Out of Many, One.

Part of the two-dimensionality of the former president's work can be attributed to the process: although he has met most of his subjects (and knows them quite well in some cases), he usually paints from photographs. Kim's portrait is no exception to this approach. However, Bush's text about the young man suggests why this portrait feels so much more complex. "Joseph's office is just downstairs from mine in the Bush Institute, where he works as an assistant and expert on our Human Freedom Initiative." This closeness made it “easy to get your photo”, but it also shows that Bush, if he has regular access to his subjects, is able to paint works that at least have a touch of exploration of his stated artistic influences show to which Lucian also belongs Freud and "the Impressionists".

Ultimately, however, Out of Many, One – an English translation of the national motto "e pluribus unum" – is not about showing Bush's artistic skills, nor is it really about the works of art themselves. By choosing portraiture – and particularly thematic groups of portraits of world leaders, military veterans, and now immigrants – Bush dips headlong into subjects that call for political interpretation. In fact, he can comment on political issues by choosing his subjects and telling their stories. Protected behind an easel, he can at the same time claim that he is simply embarking on a new aesthetic and apolitical pastime. It's an elegant solution for a previous president who still has political opinions (his presidential center includes the George W. Bush Institute, which publishes policy recommendations) but wants to appear above the struggle.

A portrait of Joseph Kim from former President Bush. George W. Bush Presidential Center

As art historian Kim Grant carefully documented in a scholarly article, Bush learned to expertly combat his retired hobby in order to rehabilitate his public image. He has enchanted people with his seemingly naive devotion to an aesthetic and gentle pastime that was unexpected in a president who started two wars and was known for macho activities like brushing brushes on his ranch. However, Grant writes, "Bush is an amateur painter, but he is an expert in public relations, imaging, and the media." In this context, Bush the portrait painter appears to be an extension of the popular, mispronounced, nickname-loving person that led Bush to two terms in the White House.

The clear connections between the political past of the 43rd President and his artistic present can even be traced back to the genesis that he provides through his decision to take up painting. He credits Winston Churchill's 1948 book Painting as a Pastime for giving him the idea. In the book, the famous British Prime Minister describes how painting can offer both an escape to a statesman who is used to living under extreme pressure and a new kind of mental stimulus for someone leaving a position that requires constant processing of information requires. Churchill advocates making art an ideal retirement project. Accordingly, his work is decidedly apolitical. The illustrations in Painting as Pastime show anodyne representations of flowers in vases and landscapes with calming features such as babbling brooks and the calm waters of Italian lakes.

Bush has deviated significantly from Churchill's advice and example. Audiences might expect to see Bush's artwork as an apolitical hobby because they are used to viewing political art from the left rather than the right. As Grant writes, "social activist art is typically associated with liberal causes and mobilizes opposition to established interests and controls." However, the former president is dealing with precisely this tradition: activist art. It just comes from a right-wing position that seems relatively moderate in the post-President Donald Trump extremist world.

The combination of relative moderation, the potential bipartisan appeal of immigration reform, and colorful, amateurish and naturalistic portraits camouflages the political nature of the work. In that sense, Out of Many, One is more successful than Bush's final series of portraits and the book that celebrates them: Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief of American Warriors (2017). This group of paintings showed veterans fought and injured in the same controversial, deadly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Bush started and directed. The portraits should pay homage to their subjects – share their stories of courage, hardship and resilience. The painful irony that Bush chose to put people he ordered into the line of fire was not lost in reviews of the book, except possibly the artist himself. Peter Schjeldahl's reaction in the New Yorker sums up many critical responses to the work Together: "After forgetting about murderous mistakes, Bush now atoned for them unsuspectingly. What do you do with someone like that? "

Bush learned his lesson for this new book. During his tenure, he was unable to reform the US immigration system. Hence, the direct impact of his presidential policy is limited to one of his subjects – although Medal of Honor winner and French American Florent Groberg were seriously injured in Afghanistan and a portrait shows an Iraqi translator for the US military working on a deeply flawed subject The Visa program began in 2006. With this in mind, the same translator legally changed his name to Tony George Bush when he naturalized as a US citizen. He seems to be a definite fan of the former president.

A portrait of the former President by Tony George Bush and his mother Layla. George W. Bush Presidential Center

The charming seriousness and intense patriotism that Tony George Bush and his mother Layla (they can be seen in a double portrait) demonstrated is really the point of Out of Many, One. Page after page are many moving stories of immigrants – some of whom have survived extreme trauma – who find a new, successful life in the United States and become self-made star citizens. From CEOs like Indra Nooyi to the Nigeria-born NASA prodigy Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, they represent an ideal of the American dream and offer the opportunity to seize opportunities and capitalize on talent.

However, there are two notable themes that appear in the narrated stories: God (often, but not exclusively, a Christian God) and Texas. The quote from Kim, who lives in Texas, sets the tone for the entire book: “The first Bible verse I read was Matthew chapter 11 verse 28: 'Come to me, all who are tired and stressed, and me will give you rest. “For example, there's the heartbreaking, traumatized story of Rwandan American Jeanne Celestine Lakin. Since then, she has founded a charity with the goal of "continuing the teachings of her parents and helping God's children around the world". Burundian American running coach Gilbert Tuhabonye was almost killed for being the child of a Catholic Tutsi family. He rediscovered God on the 10th anniversary of his genocide survival and inspired the President's daughter, Jenna Bush, to run "a little faster" by shouting, "Jenna, God is good!" during morning exercise. Both Lakin and Tuhabonye live in Texas, as do many other subjects, including most Muslim portrait sitters.

A wall of Bush portraits, including one by Gilbert Tuhabonye (bottom left), is on display at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. George W. Bush Presidential Center

Part of this tendency toward godly Texans of all origins is likely due to the fact that Bush met many of his subjects. He often describes her through events at his Presidential Center in Dallas, or in the case of Mexican American Paula Rendon, while she was at his parents' George H.W. worked. and Barbara Bush for decades. However, I couldn't help but feel that this selection of people – intentional or not – also makes political sense. In their religiosity, geography, and patriotism, the book suggests that these inspiring, resilient individuals represent the changing demographics that have recently fueled Republican gains among the more diverse electorate. Bush's list of topics seems designed to appeal to a conservative voter who tends to dislike or distrust immigrants because they are too different from them or come to steal American jobs. The stories of these extraordinary people not only arouse sympathy and admiration, but also create the feeling while writing that the subject of the portraits could possibly be conservative, as many would describe themselves: God-loving, hardworking and not looking for handouts. (In the post for Cambodian American Thear Suzuki, Bush specifically mentions that when her family arrived as refugees, "only needed three months … food stamps before becoming independent.") Many of Bush's portrait subjects could be Republican voters who wait – so why should they refuse to facilitate immigration, naturalization and voting for them?

This is the core of what Bush is aiming for in Out of Many, One. As he writes in the Acknowledgments, the project began when his former campaign manager asked Bush in 2018 "to get involved in the current immigration debate, the tone and direction of which both of us were deeply concerned". Bush refused, citing a precedent in which he did not comment on the policy of the successors. At that point, the former campaign manager turned and “spoke to the busy painter in me. He suggested that I paint portraits of immigrants to reflect my belief in the positive impact on our country. “While the means of embassy may seem apolitical – appealingly naive and cheerful paintings – Bush's ultimate goal is to engage with current political debates. Overall, he succeeded. He might even change some hearts and minds among those who are skeptical of immigration, thinking they were just buying an art book from a cowboy ex-president. (The book concludes with a few political bullet points under the Bush Institute logo and illuminated flowcharts about the Byzantine nature of the U.S. immigration system.)

Bush's collecting oil on canvas to re-enter the political debate seems to be part of a trend for past presidents. Not only did Barack and Michelle Obama create a politically-minded foundation similar to that of Bill and Hillary Clinton, they also recognized that the arts are a valuable vehicle for getting messages across that relate to their political positions. While Bush went for a decidedly analog artistic medium, the Obamas went digital by signing a deal with Netflix to develop fictional and non-fictional films and series. Churchill thought the arts were the ideal escape for a retired world leader. Indeed, they might be the best way for ex-world leaders to stay relevant.

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