Is it art? War Museum exhibits portraits by George W. Bush

Sgt. Leslie Zimmerman, U.S. Army (2001-2004). She suffers from PTSD after serving in Iraq as a medic. Lt.-Col. Kent Graham Solheim U.S. Army (1994-Present) He lost a leg in combat. Solheim is still serving. With his wife Trina, he runs a foundation that works with children of soldiers killed overseas. Both paintings are oil on canvas: Photos: Grant Miller Photography Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Center

There’s another W in the War Museum, but should it there be?

It’s the W in George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States and amateur painter — with the emphasis on amateur. While Bush’s oil paintings of injured and disabled U.S. veterans at the Canadian War Museum may be well intentioned, they fail utterly as art.

The exhibition is titled Portraits of Courage: President George W. Bush’s Tribute to American Veterans, and the works were first seen in the 2017 book of a similar title.

Bush remains a controversial figure, reflexively reviled by many on the left, which includes almost everyone in the arts. It won’t mollify Bush’s critics to learn the exhibition is sponsored by the absentee American ambassador Kelly Craft, the Trump donor who has spent so little time in Canada that she was recently grilled on the issue by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Personally, I don’t subscribe to the assertion that all of this amounts to political dabbling by the museum. Federal cultural institutions in the capital region frequently mount exhibitions or events sponsored by foreign embassies, and do so without protest. To single out this one as politically objectionable smacks of its own sort of politicking.

Regardless, those who revile Bush are likely to hate his portraits with equal force, and those who admire Bush are likely to, if not admire the paintings exactly, at least be more sympathetic to them. And sympathy is the most that anyone with the faintest trace of artistic judgement will be able to muster when looking at these portraits.

A war museum has two functions when it comes to war art — to memorialize the nation’s wars and their consequences, and to celebrate art that is not only appropriate to the subject, but is also technically and aesthetically successful.

There’s no question the portraits succeed on the first point, as they represent and honour men and women who fought, and suffered, for their country. The wounds shown in the portraits are grievous and permanent — but not insurmountable.

Bush’s portraits show the soldiers conquering the challenges of their injuries — golfing despite two prosthetic legs, or smiling through horrific damage to the face. Bush also included soldiers who battle post-traumatic stress, a burden that the current occupant of the White House would be more likely to mock.

Now for the problems, and, oh, where to begin?

The exhibition is curiously colour blind, as the 50-plus portraits are overwhelmingly of white males. Promotional material includes a woman and a black man among three main images, which may be a judicious attempt by the museum, or others involved in the process, to right the imbalance.

As for the portraits being art, there it’s the viewer who suffers. There are issues all over, in heads that are too big or strangely misshapen, in wonky eyeballs, in vertiginous perspectives likely caused by painting from photographs and lacking the skill, or the awareness, to correct the dizzying viewpoints.

Such untrained touches abound. Frequently, Bush uses impasto to represent the wounds of soldiers who sustained facial damage from shrapnel or flames, but the technique is beyond his talents. It’s as if he got a quick look at Lucien Freud’s portrait of the Queen and thought, “Hey, I can do that,” then proceeded to smear the canvases with ungainly gobs of paint.

Bush’s portraits are the sort that your hobby painter relative makes and that are best hung in the bedroom at the cottage where you put the guests you hope to not see again.

That the portraits are by a former president may make them interesting, but it doesn’t make them successful as art. Whether that’s enough to warrant an exhibition in the Canadian War Museum is a question for individual viewers, and it’s likely to be as polarizing as is so much else of the Bush legacy.

Portraits of Courage continues to Sept. 3.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.