Editor’s Note: JJ Charlesworth is an art critic and senior editor for ArtReview.
What is the difference between a war memorial and a tribute to warriors? Should we celebrate the lives of courageous people if it risks glorifying futile wars? And what, in the midst of all this, can paintings contribute?
This month, the Kennedy Center in Washington DC will exhibit art by 43rd US president, George W. Bush. Titled “Portraits of Courage” the show presents the former president’s paintings of men and women who served in the US armed forces in the years following 9/11.
It was, of course, Bush who called for a “war on terror” before launching the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively. As of last year, almost 7,000 US troops had been killed in the two conflicts. Over 50,000 more were injured, often with life-changing consequences.
Bush’s second term in office ended in 2009, and he took up painting early on in his retirement, essaying his interest in portraiture with his depictions of world leaders. He then turned to his attention to war veterans.
These newer portraits are thickly painted in the loose, vivid style Bush has developed since his early experiments with a more photorealistic technique. They were first shown at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas, in 2017. A book of the paintings, accompanied by the stories of the 98 men and women portrayed – their injuries, recoveries and lives afterward – became a New York Times bestseller.
If you wanted to put on an art-history hat, you might find echoes of the awkward, wonky figuration of American painter Alice Neel, or, in the portraits’ often anti-naturalistic coloring, something of early European Expressionists such as Ludwig Kirchner or Oskar Kokoschka.
But these are passing, accidental associations.
Some critics, such as the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, have described “Portraits of Courage” as an attempt at “atonement” – the erstwhile commander-in-chief, humbly paying his respects to ordinary soldiers by immortalizing them in paint.
However in 2013, when asked about his recovering approval rating among Americans, Bush told CNN that “ultimately history will judge” his decisions. “And so I’m pretty comfortable with it,” he continued. “I did what I did. I know the spirit in which I did it.”
So perhaps “atonement,” with its implication of admitted guilt, can’t explain the tribute these paintings pay their subjects. Instead, the portraits, in their bright, shaky positivity, reflect a shift in what is being honored. Rather than paying tribute to sacrifice and courage on the battlefield (qualities these men and women undoubtedly possess), Bush’s paintings extol the strength shown by his sitters to put their lives back together in the years that followed.
Bush’s accounts of meeting veterans (through the initiatives of his organization, the George W. Bush Institute) often focus on their battles to overcome PTSD and addiction through therapy or sport, presaging their successful return to civilian life. Bush doesn’t offer any evidence of their past status or rank. These are ordinary American men and women, now living ordinary lives, though they may bear the evidence of a prosthetic arm, leg or eye.
This ordinariness is perhaps what made the book of the paintings so popular. It is the unexceptional, unglamorous nature of Bush’s sitters – their decency and seriousness – that makes us empathize. These are people like you and I, not grim, determined, distant heroes.
Bush’s painterly style is itself the artistic equivalent of that everyday-ness, which is why, unlike his portraits of world leaders, it kind of works – it’s a style that fits the sentiment.
But there’s another side to Bush’s portraits that is harder to articulate. It relates to the conspicuous absence of the markers of heroism, duty or stoicism – those visual idioms upon which tributes to those who served in wars often rely. There are no insignia, no flags or arms.
Bush’s paintings are not memorials to the glorious dead, of course, but celebrations of the living. Yet the question hanging over these portraits is whether a return to normality is ever possible. If Bush’s paintings reach for something, it’s not atonement. It’s something more ambiguous. It’s a yearning for a return to innocence, a vision of ordinary Americans as if the post-9/11 wars had not touched them – or that, if they did, their survivors might carry on living as if they hadn’t.
Paintings of people are not memorials to war. And memorializing wars and, by implication, the reasons for waging them, has become a fraught subject in Western societies. It’s nowadays easier to celebrate victims than pay tribute to warriors, since we’ve become acutely uncomfortable – culturally and politically – with asserting the justification for wars that have been conducted in our names. Bush’s portraits connect with our empathy for surviving veterans, while wishing away the difficult question of whether their sacrifice was worth it. In the paintings’ emphasis on the survivor rather than the victor, they echo the mood of the times.
The building of national war memorials in Washington DC is regulated by the Commemorative Works Act. Until recently, no memorial could be built with 10 years of a conflict’s conclusion. The World War II memorial was only completed in 2004, inaugurated by Bush while in office.