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Bush's artistic pursuits on display

Undeterred by jibes and joking criticism from his family, former US president George W. Bush puts brush to canvas, unveiling a new exhibit on a familiar subject - world leaders.

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A dour Vladimir Putin glares ever so frostily, full of menace, free of mirth, ready to annex any passer-by unwise enough to get too close.

Tony Blair stares ahead, sober and resolute. Hamid Karzai, in traditional green cap and cape, glances off to the side, almost as if checking over his shoulder for the Taliban - or perhaps for the United States. The Dalai Lama looks serene, Stephen Harper jovial, Jiang Zemin grim.

The world's most distinctive gallery of international leaders opens in Dallas on Saturday, seen through the eyes of the former president of the United States and noted amateur painter, George W Bush. Graduating from dogs and cats and landscapes, Mr Bush has produced a collection of more than two dozen portraits of foreign figures he encountered while in office and put them on display at his presidential library.

Working through unresolved issues? A detail of a portrait by George W Bush of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Working through unresolved issues?: A detail of a portrait by George W Bush of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Photo: AP

The official debut of the artist known as W peels back the curtain on the hobby that has consumed him, and intrigued many others, over the last couple of years. Although some of his early works, including vaguely unsettling self-portraits in the bath and shower, were posted on the Internet after his family's email accounts were hacked, this is the first time the former president has staged an exhibit of his art. And his choices are as revealing about the artist as the subjects.

"I spent a lot of time on personal diplomacy and I befriended leaders," Bush said in a seven-minute video produced by the History Channel that will greet visitors to the library on the campus of Southern Methodist University. "I learned about their families and their likes and dislikes, to the point where I felt comfortable painting them."

For Mr Bush, foreign affairs during his eight years in office revolved powerfully around these relationships. "I watched one of the best at personal diplomacy in my dad," he said. "He was amazing about befriending people where there may not be common interests, and I emulated that."

Friends no more: Vladimir Putin looks ready to annex any passer-by unwise enough to get too close.

Friends no more: Vladimir Putin looks ready to annex any passer-by unwise enough to get too close. Photo: Reuters

Alongside many of the portraits in the exhibit, "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy," are photographs of the subjects with Mr  Bush as well as some artifacts of their interactions. The former president is quoted describing his experiences and giving his impressions of the subject, and the subject is quoted describing Mr Bush.

"What's interesting about them is less that they're representational pictures of these people, because a photograph would do just fine," said Stephen  Hadley, who was Mr Bush's national security adviser and who planned to interview his former boss about his paintings for a group of library patrons on Friday night. "But in the way he's painted them, it tells you about his relationships with them."

Mr Bush picked up painting two years ago after the Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis suggested he read Winston Churchill's essay, "Painting as a Pastime." After Bush experimented for a while with an iPad sketch application, Laura Bush's friend, Pamela Nelson, a Dallas artist, recommended an instructor and he began lessons with Gail Norfleet, a noted Dallas painter.

Capturing a friend: Former prime minister John Howard as painted by Mr Bush.

Capturing a friend: Former prime minister John Howard as painted by Mr Bush. Photo: Reuters

He started by painting his pets, producing scores of works. He crafted a portrait of Jay Leno that he presented to him on "The Tonight Show." By last fall, at the suggestion of an SMU art instructor, Mr Bush began concentrating on world leaders.

Now on some days, he spends three or four hours at his easel. The man who never much cared for museums - he famously rushed through the legendary Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in 30 minutes flat - told a private gathering the other day that he now can linger in art exhibits for hours at a time studying brush strokes and colour palettes.

Many have wondered whether Bush is working through some unresolved issues through his art, but friends say it is a way of channeling a restless spirit now that he has left politics behind. "Fundamentally, he's a guy with a lot of energy," said Mark McKinnon, his former political consultant. "And he needs a pursuit to help burn it off. And it may seem counterintuitive, but it's also how he relaxes."

 Mr Bush's dabbling have captured attention, if for no other reason than it seemed surprising that the "war president," as he liked to call himself, had an artistic side.  Just as surprising was that his early work drew generous reviews from some art critics not known for conservative politics.

To be sure, this is not a new Rembrandt, and Mr Bush freely acknowledged in the video that "the signature is worth more than the painting."

None of the world leaders Bush painted had a choice, as he did not tell them he was trying to capture their likenesses.

Many of them were friends. He was probably closest to Blair, the former British prime minister, despite their ideological differences, as the two teamed up to topple Saddam Hussein only to watch the Iraq War bog down in a quagmire. Bush said he had painted that one "with a lot of affection," adding, "I wanted people to say he's a man of conviction."

Others he considered friends included Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, whom he once took to Graceland to croon Elvis Presley songs, not to mention Angela Merkel of Germany, John Howard of Australia and Nicolas Sarkozy of France. Some he admired, like the Dalai Lama ("a very sweet man, and I painted him as sweetly as I could") and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia ("a strong determination to succeed, and so I painted her as a strong woman leader, as she is").

With still others, he had complicated relationships, like Karzai of Afghanistan, Jiang of China, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Jacques Chirac of France, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq.

And then of course, there was Putin, the frenemy from the Kremlin who has been locked in a tense confrontation with President Barack Obama over Russia's annexation of Crimea, much as he clashed with Bush over the war with Georgia in 2008.

"The picture shows a tough guy, set jaw and very cold eyes," observed MrHadley. "Putin has certainly put himself on display for the world. I don't think there's much more we can say about Putin that Putin hasn't already revealed to the world in living colour."

Closer to home, Bush also included a self-portrait (fully clothed this time) and a portrait of his father, the 89-year-old former President George Bush, who appears ruddy cheeked and bright eyed.

The younger Bush said the lesson of his journey into art is that there are always fresh beginnings. "You can teach an old dog new tricks," he said. "I expect I'll be painting til I drop. And my last stroke, and I'm heading into the grave, I wonder what colour it will be?"

New York Times