Four days ago, a hacker named Guccifer broke into former President George W. Bush’s email account, letting loose upon the world three stolen photographs of Bush’s newest hobby, painting. Besides gravitating toward more standard fare, such as landscapes, Bush seems to have surprised art critics with two self-portraits that, in the words of Hrag Vartanian at Hyperallergic, “demonstrate to us a more inward looking Bush, a man who is exploring his emotional life through paint.”
The first painting is of a bathtub, in a yellow room with dark wainscotting. As viewers, we look from the perspective of the bather, whose knobby knees poke out of the gray-green bathwater, along with the tops of a pair of feet at the end of the tub. A towel hangs from the wall in the distance; water streams from the faucet and ends in a gentle splash between the bather’s feet.
The second, which one Twitter follower called “Las Meninas of the Technology Era,” shows Bush in the shower, with his back turned toward the viewer. The rectangular, beige shower tiles dwarf the ex-president, even as he makes eye contact with us through his reflection in a circular mirror. Water rushes from the showerhead, falling to the floor without being used.
The paintings have been reviewed from every conceivable angle, including a Freudian interpretation. For the most part, the consensus is that they are “dull” and “simplistic,” and suffer from bad perspective. Certain writers and critics allude to the fact that the paintings may contain genuinely contemplative subject matter, but whether it’s Bush’s intent, or just to experiment with his technique for painting water, we’ll never know.
In the end, it’s the timing of the hack and the subsequent leak that seem the most fortuitous. Bush and his policies are unclaimable in today’s politics, even by his own party. Six months ago, Slate and The Huffington Post ran stories titled “Where is George W. Bush?” and “George W. Bush: The President Who Must Not Be Named At Republican Convention.” These paintings give us a blank slate to project whatever it is we most need from him now that his term in office is through, whether that’s an apology, an admission of inadequacy, or a vindication.
Soon after the paintings went viral, Ryder Ripps created an overlay with which you can snap a shot of yourself peering into Bush’s bathtub—in some ways the perfect visual representation of our varied intellectual and emotional responses to the paintings. Some participants shoot looks of anger, while others just goof around. It’s a reminder that whatever we see in the art, it’s always just ourselves reflected back.