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Famous Art Professor Critiques the Artwork of Presidents & Dictators

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During George W Bush’s presidency he was called many things.  ‘President’, ‘Dictator’, ‘Commander in Chief’ or ‘ War Criminal’.  What is certain is no one ever referred to him as George ‘The Artist’. But in 2013 a hacker broke into the Bush family email accounts and leaked George’s paintings.  The most shocking pieces were self-portraits of the Commander in Chief in his bathtub…naked.  He has since released dozens of portraits of dogs and dignitaries that he met through work.  And he is not alone, many iconic world leaders were also painters in their spare time and I set out to get an expert’s opinion on them.

I sat down with internationally renowned art critic and tenured professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, Mark Van Proyen (MVP) to review and compare paintings done by some of the world’s most well known leaders (and artists) like Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Vladimir Putin, & General Dwight D Eisenhower.  We begin with President Bush in the bathtub:

bush showerbush bath

Self-portraits by George W. Bush, Oil on Canvas

Professor MVP: “Bush’s shower paintings are obsessive attempts to wash out a Macbethian spot of guilt. He is washing away his sins.” I ask him if he thinks they are any good?  They are his best paintings.  His use of color is a little more adventurous,(than his portraits of dogs and dignitaries) and the compositions are more sophisticated…These people (world leaders in general) are mouthpieces of vast and complex political machines…for many of them painting is probably an escape…it’s therapeutic…An attempt to recover some sense of their own subjectivity.”  

The Professor implied that Bush’s other portraits weren’t as good, so I asked him to compare Bush’s portrait of ‘Barney The Dog’ with Adolf Hitler’s Portrait of a German Shepard to see who was the better artist.  A head to head match-up of doggie paintings between two of the world’s most famous leaders.

bush dogGerman Shepard










Dog portraits by George W. Bush VS. Adolf Hitler


“The one on the left (Bush) is an example of sappy calendar art, it’s a sentimental illustration in simple color.”  I remind the professor that President Bush has only been painting for 2 years.  “The fact that he’s an amateur does not excuse this sentimental, Thomas Kinkadian, crap.” And what about Hitler’s pooch on the right? “What is there to say? Anatomically this is just bad, the dog has no chin, the eyeball is flat (2 dimensional) and the rest of the mouth…I mean look at that tongue”.   I press the professor for a decision on which dog illustration is better. “There’s no winner here,” he says continuing to shake his head.

I ask the professor what is the key to making a great self-portrait. “The Key to making a great self-portrait is having a very smart realization about how to portray two things at the same time , which is a ‘type’ of person, and a ‘specific’ person.”
What are some examples of great self-portrait artists?
“Rembrandt and Francis Bacon”

We move on to Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who painted throughout his life, here is his self-portrait before WWII.

Brown Selfie

Self-Portrait by Winston Churchill

Professor MVP: “Extreme light and dark, he seems to be responding to darkness and at the same time being devoured by it. What you see is less of a concern about the specifics of a person, and what it is like to be trapped between light and dark, and definition and the lack of definition…It looks to me like someone suffering from serious depression…What got him out of his depression was probably the opportunity to drop bombs on opponents…which is always invigorating.” (smiles)  Your favorite painting so far?  “Yes Winston Churchill is the winner so far”

Next we have a painting done by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  The Painting sold for 37 million rubles in 2009 at a charity auction(equivalent to roughly 1 million US dollars).  I asked the professor to expand on what this painting says about Putin the man.
Putin window
President Vladimir Putin, Oil on Canvas, 2009
“It kind of suggests to me what we all secretly hope and fear about Putin.”  What is that? I ask.  “That Putin is gay.  He’s living in this state of theatrical overcompensation, he’s manifesting a crisis of masculinity at every turn.”  I ask the Professor about how he can tell all of this from looking at a painting.  “The window here is a signifier of an unresolved conflict with a maternal figure…although It has a dead pan aperture, placed squarely in the middle of the canvas, there is a snowy winter outside surrounded by what can easily be interpreted as labial curtains, a blocked passage toward coldness, emotional unavailability, but then it’s also an attempt to put a happy face on it…Russians are always trying to propagandize their own suffering.”  I asked the professor to expand on the ‘gay’ implication, and the professor explained to me that like most anti-gay crusaders, who love to say ‘god hates fags’(Putin), these are the guys who are later found in a Greyhound bus station bathroom with a male prostitute.
So according the the professor both Bush and Putin seem to be symbolizing repressed feelings through their art, Bush’s sentimentality and guilt and Putin’s wanting for his mother…and his apparent homosexuality, Churchill on the other hand despite being more talented was most likely deeply depressed. (Churchill famously and admittedly suffered from depression).  We move on to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s self portrait as a young man.
hitler self portrait
Self-Portrait by Adolf Hitler
Professor MVP: “This is embarrassing… to anybody who has an adult level of sophistication.” I ask the professor to explain what he sees in Hitler’s painting. “Well he painted this as a young man (1910), he’s concerned about the future, he has not yet started a career in politics. At the time of this painting the controversial style of painting was ‘Expressionism’ in Germany, particularly by a group of artists called ‘Die Brücke’ which is ‘the bridge’ in German…so maybe this is Hitler showing some awareness of the times and pondering crossing that ‘bridge’ into a world of tortured representation, but perhaps reluctant to abandon familiarity…it’s a work of sappy self-indulgence, an examination of oneself, it’s something you paint in High School.” Hitler did not cross the bridge into modern expressionism, and as a student was twice rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He later of course persecuted painters of ‘Die Brücke’ as leader of the Nazi party.
“Fast forward 27 years to 1937 (same year as Kristallnacht), Hitler is the elected Chancellor of Germany, and the Nazi’s hold an art exhibit called ‘Degenerative Art” where they tried to vilify the the works of ‘Die Brücke’ as well as most modern art of the time…the exhibition was wildly popular.” (reportedly 1 million people went to see the ‘Degenerative art’ exhibition in its first 6 weeks). 

Now for America’s most famous Generals turned President.  General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) Vs. General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885)  Both great American Generals who went on to become Presidents…and painters.  I asked the professor to compare their landscapes and decide which warrior was the greater artist.

eisenhower landscape

Landscape by President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Professor MVP: “That’s just a generic, crappy painting of snow, everyone’s aunt tilly can paint that…it has zero depth”

ulyssys s grant landscape

Landscape by President Ulysses S. Grant

Professor MVP: “There’s light differentiation, he’s using atmospheric perspective, there’s fore ground, middle ground and background.” Your Winner: President Grant

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

I'm the managing editor here at Broke-Ass Stuart. I enjoy covering Bay Area News as well as writing about Arts, Culture & Nightlife.

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