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A former president deals with a painful part of his legacy

Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief's Tribute to America's Warriors

By George W. Bush


192 pages, $35

During his eight years as commander in chief of the United States Armed Forces, George W. Bush sent thousands of men and women into harm’s way.

When they came back, if they came back, they carried deep physical and emotional scars.

Some of those scars and the less visible traumatic effects of two wars appear in a series of sensitive portraits by the former president and paired with personal histories in the new book “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to American Warriors.”

The faces bear the traces of Bush’s decisions -- and it is easy to imagine that each line and crevice contains some fragment of a battle fought, a mission launched or a life taken.

What has been written so far about the portraits by esteemed art critics is true: Bush’s portraits reveal the hand of a gifted and committed artist, revealing in their calculated play of light and shadow and confident use of color something of the complex personalities and experiences of their subjects.

"Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief's Tribute to America's Warriors." (Crown)


To be sure, the praise is high because the bar is low.

Few would be paying attention to these portraits if not for the profile of the artist. They are the surprisingly adept work of a rapidly developing amateur, hardly destined to be more than a footnote in the annals of art history. But for that reason and others related to the Bush administration’s outsized impact on global human suffering, they merit a look.

“I wanted to show their determination to recover, lack of self-pity, and desire to continue to serve in new ways as civilians,” Bush wrote in his introduction. “I painted these men and women as a way to honor their service to the country and to show my respect for their sacrifice and courage.”

Perhaps the most striking portrait in the books is of Leslie Zimmerman, an Army sergeant and medic who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom and returned with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. With bright auburn hair set against a swirling turquoise background, the exaggerated and unbalanced proportions of Zimmerman’s face emphasize the searching look in her eyes. Those eyes seem to be cast far beyond the canvas at some remote object or static memory that lies many miles, perhaps even oceans, away.

The thick and free-handed impasto that covers the nose and cheeks of a portrait of Army Lt. Col. Kenneth Michael Dwyer, who lost his left eye and left arm in an RPG attack on his third tour in Afghanistan, borrows a trick from the Impressionists. His more sophisticated color work demonstrates the clear influence of Lucian Freud, whom Bush cites in his introduction as a source of inspiration.

But, perhaps because the answer is impossible to discern, it is much more interesting to contemplate the extent to which the sometimes tortured execution of these portraits reflects the emotional life of their creator.

How much of that emotional life is made of up of pure and unalloyed American patriotism, and how much of it contains tinges of guilt? The introduction and the profiles in the book suggest one answer, but the portraits suggest another.

Few transformations in public life have been more fascinating to watch, or more indicative of the public's desire to forget, than Bush’s post-presidency. And these portraits are the latest example of that shift from reviled politician to cute and meme-worthy old man.

If we let it, each new stroke of each new portrait could further obscure the fact that America waged a war on based on, at best, dubious intelligence, costing the lives of nearly 4,500 Americans and between 150,000 and 1 million Iraqis. It is easy to forget the weight of that decision. We want to forget, because the notion of coming to terms with with it seems impossible.

But these portraits, and Bush’s surprisingly adept career as an artist, don’t have to exist merely to polish a legacy that may not be polishable. They could serve a much more noble function.

If Bush is intent on becoming more than just a Sunday painter -- and this book surely proves that he is capable of that -- he will have to reckon with even darker demons.

Colin Dabkowski is the News Arts Critic

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