Heart on a Canvas: Lessons From the Paintings of George W. Bush

An art therapist analyzes the most recent batch of the former president's paintings.
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Gawker recently published another six paintings by George W. Bush. Among the politician-turned-painter's images are new subjects; after a slew of dogs, we were delighted to find cats, shells, a crucifix, and, erm, more dogs. Reactions to the new artwork have been fairly mixed. Some felt that Bush's paintings were "sort of sweet." "Guys. Stop making me feel sorry for George W. Bush," urged another commenter. A less sympathetic viewer denounced the "dull drab emptiness" of the paintings, while others pondered the resemblance of one of the cats to its painter. Someone else considered the suggestive connotations of Bush's shells. Overwhelmed by all the symbolism, we took the 43rd President to art therapy -- well, not really, but we did speak to the art therapist Rachel Brandoff in an effort to clarify his paintings. Here's what she had to say.

The first thing Brandoff noticed about Bush's paintings was that they're pretty beginner. "Looking at the paintings through a critical lens, they have a very amateur quality," she said. For all the simplicity of the artworks, Brandoff observed that Bush's portraits of dogs in particular possess "a representative quality -- as if the artist is portraying a dog he knows or has encountered." According to Brandoff, there's a real "personal and emotional investment on behalf of the artist in the subject matter." Indeed, the form and content really relate to each other in Bush's work. "The way he uses lines, shapes, and color speaks to his putting a lot of value on the object or subject of the painting, whether the cat, dog, or shells," Brandoff observed. Might this explain why someone admitted feeling sorry for Bush? His art wears its heart on its canvas, so to speak.

As Brandoff pointed out, "Oftentimes in art you see a figure floating in a background," but Bush's pictures of dogs are unfussy and deliberate, as though, she said, depicted from "memory." They're "less defined" depictions in that they take up a central position on the canvas; this is obvious art. While the dogs are all right, it's Bush's portrait of a cat that appears to have made the biggest impression on Brandoff. "It almost seems like the artist is trying to put the cat in some kind of context and yet the background is sort of vague. Who is the cat? Where did it come from?" Brandoff asked, suggesting that really "the piece is about the cat, not what's surrounding it."

So -- just like on the Internet -- it's all about the cat. But what does the cat mean? I gingerly suggested to Brandoff that maybe the cat was a bit like Bush -- that he's trying to put himself into a different context, too. Perhaps Brandoff was kindly humoring me when she said that was an interesting idea. Yet what's really interesting, she said, is "that these paintings are coming from a former president," which she said, "gives us a very different lens [with which] to think about him ... I think the key takeaway from these paintings is that every person has many sides to them," Brandoff added. "We need to remember that ... nobody's one-dimensional."


This post also appears on Flavorpill, an Atlantic partner site.

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Chloe Pantazi writes for Flavorpill.

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