I wasn’t planning to blog about this exhibit — I was merely curious to see our former president’s paintings in real life after hearing about them for so long, and I wanted to check out the new Reach at the Kennedy Center. But since I went on Saturday, I can’t stop thinking about these portraits.
The exhibit portrays 96 men and two women Bush met at military hospitals; they all have harrowing accounts of how they were wounded, which I could hear Bush recounting in an audio app several visitors were listening to—some of them wiping away tears in the process.
The portraits, rendered with thick brush strokes and jarring, sometimes acid colors, reminded me immediately of Van Gogh:
The absence of any physical context in most of the portraits goes straight into a veteran’s psyche. I must admit I was surprised by his talent, and his ability to create that emotional tension.
And even beyond the topic at hand—the incredibly moving and traumatic stories behind each veteran’s experience—his use of color takes me back to Matisse’s expressionism.
The chair, along with the saturated colors of the wall and window in the portrait above, reminds me of a Matisse painting I saw just a few weeks ago at the National Gallery. I love his rendering of pattern.
I stood there for the longest time, wanting to talk to these people who are so full of expression.
And then I would go back into examining those brush strokes, and those colors—a hallmark of the Fauvist movement, of which Matisse and Van Gogh were certainly a part.
Lots of stories have been written on Bush’s politics and whether this project was a form of atonement for bringing us into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whether it should even be at the Kennedy Center, but I wasn’t thinking about any of that, really.
I just hadn’t seen this type of technique before in contemporary painting. Maybe it’s because I don’t go to tons of galleries and exhibits, but I found these paintings to be so much deeper, thoughtful and provocative than I ever expected. And by the looks of the folks sitting in chairs and even on the floor, gazing at them while they listened to Bush’s narration, I don’t think I was alone.
Happy Veterans Day.