by Doctor Science
That can't be serious, I thought to myself when I turned a corner at the Gallery and saw the portrait. The mundane kitsch of the thing was shocking. There are standards. By God there are standards. Aren't there? A vase of flowers sits on the table of a dining room set behind him. The set is more middlebrow than anything you could find even at a mainstream outfit like IKEA. It is a set you'd find, I suppose, at Jennifer Convertibles. The whole scene is resolutely suburban. Aggressively suburban.Meis is shocked at how much the portrait looks like "a Sears portrait" in quality, but what shocks *me* is how resolutely unpresidential it is.
Look at the picture:
Now look at it in the lineup of official presidential portraits:
Bush's portrait isn't just a variant, a different take on the Official Presidential Portrait genre. This painting isn't in the genre at all: this is a presidential portrait that says: "he never really felt like the President, he's just a nice old guy".
It's not just GWB's lack of jacket and tie, though that's pretty shocking. Only a month after this portrait was unveiled, the Washington establishment claimed to feel culture shock because Obama worked in shirtsleeves, to the point of calling it a sign of disrespect for the office. Yet I can't find anyone bluntly noting that for Bush to have his official portrait done in informal dress is disrespectful to the office and to his predecessors -- even though it hits *me* that way, with the force of a two-by-four.
Every other President, for his official portrait, chose to wear serious, formal clothing, and pose in a serious setting. Their portraits show responsible adults, hard-working and aware of their place in history. Sitting or standing, their posture is upright, and they dominate the space they're in.
In addition to the conventions of the genre, each Presidential portrait is also propaganda for the particular President. The portrait is painted and presented to the National Gallery only after the President leaves office -- the propaganda is aimed at the verdict of history, not the polls.
Look how the three preceding Presidents wanted to be remembered:
For Bill Clinton, two flags are better than one, and the golden draperies on either side of him re-double the message: he's on the straight and narrow, you bet, don't listen to those haters. George H.W. Bush also is really shoveling in the symbols: a globe (he thought about the whole world), a piece of paper (he was hard-working), *and* standing in front of a painting about the Civil War (he dealt with the gravest of issues). Ronald Reagan's portrait, by Everett Raymond Kinstler, is IMHO the most effective of the lot. Reagan is clearly in the White House (pillars of history), but looking out over a vista. He's relaxed and smiling, confident in his position. The message is clear: It's Morning in America.
But from GW Bush, we not only get casual clothing, we get a casual posture -- and not a flattering one, either. GWB is sitting on a sofa (presumably at Camp David) so low that his knees come up higher than his waist, and he's leaning forward onto his hands and the arm of the sofa. Morgan Meis thinks the ring of GWB's arms is striking and significant, but it looks to me like one of artist Bob Anderson's standard arm poses. The overall effect of GWB's posture is to make him look shorter, diminished -- he takes up less space in the canvas than the usual President.
Anderson, a friend of Bush's from Yale, said he wanted to depict the President in a personal, conversational manner ... as the people who know him and like him and care about him would experience him -- and doubtless this is what Bush himself wanted, and what he got. The portrait depicts Bush as a nice guy, an older gentleman you the viewer might talk to one on one, sitting casually in an informal home, on a normal American sofa -- it's even avocado green, sitting on an orangey carpet for that total 1974-family-room experience.
But there is nothing here of leadership, responsibility, tough decisions, the verdict of history, or even morning in America. There is nothing to remind us of his *job*, the work he was elected to do and that this portrait is supposed to commemorate.
As I've worked on this post I've been going back and forth in my mind. Sometimes I think this portrait is a big F.U. to the verdict of history and the office of the Presidency: "You think I failed? I didn't even try! I didn't want to do the work, I didn't even think of myself as the President. And you know what, Dad? I love Mom best."
But then sometimes I look at it another way, and think he's refusing to have a serious Presidential portrait because he knows he failed at being President, and his only hope for swaying the verdict of history is to say: "But I was a really nice guy, honest! Just the sort of person you'd want to have a conversation with. Let's not think about unpleasantness, OK?" From this POV, I think he's telling the truth when he says Kanye West calling him racist was the low point of his Presidency: Bush *knows* he's a failure, but he doesn't think that makes him a *bad person* or anything, and he is stung, truly hurt, that people might think he's not, you know, *nice*.
But then I look back at the picture, and I see the shirt. Morgan Meis says:
I like how clean his shirt is, how crisp are the lines running up the right arm that Bush rests with such infinite comfort on his leg. The ridge of that crease on that brilliantly ironed light blue shirt is a promise to us all. The ridge of fabric says this: Certain things exist with certainty. But that fact is no big deal, either.Part of being a reviewer, of course, is to sling bull -- but this is bull. A casual shirt ironed to a crispy crease doesn't mean "certain things exist with certainty", it means "this shirt just came out of the box". It's not just casual, it's *faux" casual -- the way GWB is a faux cowboy. And apparently the way he wants to present himself is as a faux President.