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Painting as a pastime

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Art is inherently political. Yeh, yeh, you’ve heard it all before. That insipid statement, debated in cold stone school rooms and by bespectacled, turtle-neck wearing pseudos in their mid-teens. It persists. Cliché, bold, and affrontive as it is, it’s an excellent prelude to debate and discussion. And when discussing Modern Art, it’s impossible to deny it. In a world where the clothes you wear, the supermarket you frequent, and the way you go to work are political actions, surely I’d be mad to demur. 

But it’s almost impossible to be authentic in this discussion. I could go on about how ‘Picasso is a Communist; neither am I’. Or I could discuss how the Futurists paved the way for Fascism. But it’s nothing new; it’d be the same old crop, harvested again, the several thousandth Autumn. I think I’ve found some authentic way of diving into the topic: the Painter-Politician. How does the Statesman (a Churchill or a George W.) or a Dictator (Franco and Hitler) channel politics into their hobby, if at all. Let’s see.  

In May 1915 Sir Winston Churchill was held widely responsible for the botched campaign in Gallipoli. He was demoted from his post as First Lord of the Admiralty to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was consumed by what he called ‘the black dog’ of depression. His dejected mind fretted over his political future; a once active man was now inactive, and, as he wrote in Painting as Pastime (his 1932 treatise on the benefits of hobbies), ‘[he] knew everything but could do nothing’.  

He had rented Hoe Farm, a quaint cottage in West Sussex, with some family members. Watching his sister-in-law Lady Gwendoline ‘Goonie’ Churchill painting, he became fascinated. She invited him to paint and he was immediately captivated.  

The Muse of Painting, he related, came to him and said: ‘Are these toys any good to you? They amuse some people’. The only word his mouth could utter was ‘Yes!’ Gradually, his skillset improved.  

The only painting which Churchill made in World War II is The Tower of Koutoubia Mosque (painted January 1943, and recently sold at Christie’s for £8.285 million). Look closely at it — see its quaint impressionism, with the pinkish Atlas mountains, paled by distance, and the blue yet darkening sky. Life, here in Morocco, continues as ever. The scene is timeless. If we did not know its date, there would be no detail that would shout ‘this is 1943, this is the War’. There’s nothing particularly ‘Tory’ about it either — the style is noticeably 2oth century, and it isn’t stylistically conservative, nor does it engage with issues of class, or wealth, or Imperialism. Yet it does have a political aim, motive, and setting; it was a scene Churchill had encountered with President Roosevelt after the Casablanca Conference, 1943, and was painted as a gift for him. As Christie’s Nick Orchard says: ‘This is Churchill’s diplomacy at its most personal and intense … It is not an ordinary gift between leaders. This is soft power, and it is what the special relationship is all about.’ Its political significance is not in and of the painting itself, but rather the way it was used and its personal meanings.’ This is by no means a confrontational, political painting, nor does it have a message — but it serves a political end. That, as we will find out, is often the case with the paintings of Politicians.  

The paintings of Franco and Hitler follow in this vein. The pictures aren’t political; they’re essence and meaning is. The controversy that follows when they appear in auction, or are shown in a gallery, is testament to this. History the righteous scorns these men and all their creations. So do we. We politicise the pictures.  

Adolf Hitler is one of the most interesting of all of them. We all know he was rejected from art school, and what that spurred him on to do. Painting, for him, was not a pastime; it was a vocation. He was an artist first and a politician second, as he related to the British ambassador Nevile Henderson in August 1939: ‘I am an artist and not a politician. Once the Polish question is settled, I want to end my life as an artist’. This, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt. It was convenient for him to be seen as a Cincinattus, who would serve his nation before returning to his civic role.  

Amusingly, his style is particularly dull; all his arrogance and self-promotion cannot contradict that. He paints  landscapes and architectural paintings which belong in dull Victorian histories and in the loos of Grannies who give sloppy and sponge-like kisses. One landscape — a standard, Teutonic depiction of an overly smooth and idealised alpine summit, with a green valley of pines and rocks and the suggestion of a stream below — is especially mundane. The last time this came on the market, the Auctioneer announced that it had ‘no artistic value’. I concur. His record at auction is £140,000. Churchill wins again.  

Francisco Franco painted gory images of guns and gamebirds: the mundane but relatively well painted apotheosis of the Spanish infatuation with blood and death. The inevitable productions of a military commander and fascist leader who made a foray into painting. Franco’s obra maestra, however, is his last painting: the imaginatively named A Ship in the Middle of a Storm. The ship sinks into the sea, calmly and politely, with a degree of resignation to its fate, as if there were something preordained or expected about it. There is no drama in the painting. The waves, though tumultuous, repeat themselves in shape and size and colour, whilst the application of perspective disorients the viewer. One seems to look at the sea, ship, and sky, from a different angle. This could be charming if done by a master of such things — a Cezanne or a Braque — but here it is dreadful.  

Over the last few paragraphs, it should have become clear that the ‘Fascist School’ doesn’t really offer up ‘Fascist’ paintings. If Art were inherently political, it’s strange that the paintings of these two most political of men, whose beliefs infected everything, should have painted such apolitical paintings.  

But it’s also with Bush that we discover an antidote to the apolitical images which we’ve discussed so far. Here, painting becomes entangled with the creation of a post-presidential image and the establishment of a legacy. Perhaps this is why his paintings are most powerful, the most striking of this esoteric club. His style is expressionistic: portraits, with quick, impasto brushstrokes but with clear, identifiable facial expressions. His Portraits of Courage series depicts ninety-eight men and women from the military who were injured (physically or mentally) in the wars in the Middle East. The portraits of Sgt. Michael Rodriguez and Sgt. Israel del Toro are both particularly striking. The former’s blind eye, with the pond-coloured pupil, is harrowing, and his face seems sculpted to display a precocious wisdom. The latter is rather an odd painting; his face is carved in various shapes and colours, and, if it weren’t for his smile, it could be quite troubling. One seems to see a vivisection of the subject; at points, his skeleton seems to show, and one gets a sense of the layers of the person, and how these were piled on him by the war. By painting these veterans, all of whom the ex-President met, it suggests a willingness on his part to engage in the healing process, to try and raise awareness and honour these people whose lives he himself partly destroyed. His recent Out of Many, One exhibition documented the success stories of various immigrants to the country. It should be clear now that he uses the canvas to portray a political legacy, a vision of America — one in which the American Dream is rife, ever attainable, and where Veterans are welcomed back into society, with ease and respect. The image of a painter is often a peaceful, friendly, calm one in modern society — the image of civilisation — and so, as he covers canvas with paint, so too does he paint over his errors as leader, his careless militarism. 

Perhaps in an era of retirement, which has replaced death as the expurgator of politicians, where politicians live to see the revisions and reevaluations of their tenure at the top, it is unsurprising that they should try, in a soft and discreet way, to take part in the debate about their own legacy. This, perhaps, is the great difference between Bush and the earlier three: that, and having a striking, relatively authentic style.  

In any case, in Painting as Pastime, Churchill, in the rich tradition of the 20th century Manifesto, writes: ‘We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint-box. And for this Audacity is the only ticket.’ But which politician ever dared restrict their ambition? 

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