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.
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.
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.
The portraits are thickly painted in the loose, vivid style that Bush has developed since his early experiments with a more photorealistic technique. Credit: Grant Miller/Courtesy of The Kennedy Center
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.
Bush took up painting early on in his retirement. Credit: Grant Miller/Courtesy of The Kennedy Center
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.
But in the last few years, the desire to memorialize has gained new momentum. There are now several new war memorials planned in DC, including the National World War I memorial, one to Desert Storm and Desert Shield (the Gulf War, or “First Iraq War”), another dedicated to African Americans who fought in the revolution and a separate memorial for Native American veterans.
This explosion of memorials reflects a common preoccupation — that all who fought and suffered should be acknowledged and recognized. But it also happens at a time when questions of common national identity, and America’s role in the world order, seem more confused and troubled than ever. Recognizing the sacrifice of those who fought in a nation’s wars is a sincere tribute. Yet it only serves to highlight how uncertain we have become, today, about the rightness of fighting those wars.
It’s this uncertainty, perhaps, that hovers in the gaze of Bush’s subjects.