Anyone Can See That The Canvas Doesn’t Fight Back /// On Winston Churchill and George W. Bush

April 6, 2013 · Print This Article

Winston Churchill—one of the most famous men of the 20th century— was the Prime Minister of England (twice!) and a big, sappy painter. He loved his landscapes and still lives and painted over an estimated 500 in his lifetime. What drew a man of such political power to something like painting? He saw it as the end-all, be-all of anxiety, which I think says a lot coming from someone who nicknamed his own clinical depression.

Churchill was an accomplished writer as well, establishing a close friendship with American publisher Emery Reves — who would inevitably begin to collect the politician’s paintings. Reeves would later die in 1981 but soon after his wife, a native Texan, would establish the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection at the Dallas Museum of Art.

In Churchill’s 1932 meditation, Painting As A Pastime[1], he begins with remedies to avoid worry for those who have to “bear exceptional responsibilities.” He states:

Some counsel travel, and others retreat. Some praise solitude, and others, gaiety. No doubt all these may play their part according to the individual temperament. But the element which is constant and common in all of them is Change.

Change is the master key.

 

Churchill seen here in 1948, probably in France.

Churchill seen here in 1948, probably in France.

 

*****

Preston Hollow is a northern suburb of Dallas, Texas and the home of former president George W. Bush.  It takes, according to Google maps, about 10 minutes to get from downtown Preston Hollow to 1717 N Harwood St, the home of the Dallas Museum of Art. Make a few turns here and there and inevitably, you are surrounded by paintings by the most powerful Prime Minister of all time.[2]

Since the news spread in early February of Bush’s new interest in painting, and the inevitable link between the two men, I’ve thought a lot about what it takes to take up any act of artistic expression after immense anxiety. All crazy theories aside, I don’t really think it’s that far fetched to assume that Bush, the recent (for-a-lack-of-a-better-word) “victim” of cyber hacking, is unaware of the paintings by Winston Churchill.

Churchill was pretty unabashed about the masculine attributes of his endeavors. Painting, he felt, was like fighting a battle. Speaking of his initial hesitation to begin, he realized “anyone could see that it [the canvas], could not hit back.” It was, in his opinion, great for reducing the worry brought about by public pressure.

Though subject matter for Churchill was always of a tame, amateur nature that had been in vogue for hobbyists for a long time. The typical English countryside, French landscape or an orchid set up are his most notable works—never (thank goodness) any implied nude self-portraits. Churchill did not live to see the post-Warhol world, though, and was probably too busy to notice the Abstract Expressionists or any other Avant-garde art movements at the time. After his initial stint as Prime Minister, he was briefly in the United States to give the Iron Curtain speech[3] and was probably monitoring The Cold War thereafter as Leader of the Opposition party.

So while in theory he proclaimed in Painting as a Pastime and elsewhere that painting held strong sentiments to war and  ‘conquering a canvas’, as it were, Churchill’s actual paintings were anything but war-like.

An example of Churchill's paintings. He favored Orchids and other flowers with a contrasting backdrop.

An example of Churchill’s paintings. He favored Orchids and other flowers with a contrasting backdrop.

*****

In order to make his plan, the General must not only reconnoiter the battle-ground, he must also study the achievements of the great Captains of the past.

He must bring the observations he has collected in the field into comparison with the treatment of similar incidents by famous chiefs.

…

You see the difficulty that baffled you yesterday; and you see how easily it has been overcome by a great or even by a skilful painter. …You will look at the masterpieces of art with an analyzing and a comprehending eye.

 

George W. Bush is rather famous for waxing over any misgivings about his presidency by saying on numerous occasions, “let history be the judge.” If Churchill has given a precedent regarding hobby-painting after leading a war-driven administration, is it safe to say that Bush is attempting to reconcile his previous gutsy, no nonsense Cowboy persona by tapping into his artistic side?

He wouldn’t be the first but he is certainly the strangest.



[1] Originally appeared in Churchill’s essays of adventures, Amid These Storms

[2] Churchill took up painting at the age of 40 and was Prime Minister the first time, during WWII at age 66, when England was part of the allied forces against Germany, headed by Adolf Hitler—another famous politician and painter of the 20th century.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t a painter but an admirer who established a role for artists as part of the New Deal. Supreme Commander of the allied forces, Dwight D. Einsenhower (later 34th president) was known to dabble in oil painting, Churchill’s preferred medium.

[3] Given on March 6th, 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill touted his long skepticism of Soviet control in Western Europe despite their former status as an major ally force. At the time Jackson Pollock still lived in relative obscurity and most artists at the time were seen as Communist-leaning, or “nutty” as President Truman saw it.

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