Portrait of Putin as a tense man: George W. Bush unveils his artistic streak with paintings of world leaders
As 43rd US president takes up art to open his mind, he says his portraits of other world leaders reflect the time he spent on 'personal diplomacy'
Former US president George W. Bush said relations with Vladimir Putin grew "increasingly tense" during his White House years, as he unveiled his portraits of world leaders, including the Russian head of state.
Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former British prime minister Tony Blair, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Dalai Lama are among the two dozen leaders featured in an exhibition of the paintings which opened at a Texas museum yesterday.
Giving his journalist daughter Jenna a sneak preview of the exhibition for NBC's Today programme, Bush lingered by his canvas of a solemn-eyed Putin.
"I got to know him very well," the former president said.
Bush, 67, said relations with Putin during his eight years in the White House - from 2001 to 2009, a period that included the US-led invasion of Iraq - "became more tense as time went on".
"Vladimir's a person who in many ways views the US as an enemy," Bush said. "And although he wouldn't say that, I felt that he viewed the world as, either the US benefits and Russia loses or vice versa."
"I tried of course to dispel him of that notion," he added.
"I spent a lot of time on personal diplomacy and I befriended leaders and learned about their families and their likes and dislikes, to the point where I felt comfortable painting them," he said in an introductory video to the exhibit.
"Painting portraits of my friends and some people who weren't necessarily my friends gave me a sense to convey a feeling I have about them because I got to know them well in the presidency," he added in the video.
The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says the exhibition will run until June 3.
Prior to Friday, none of the portraits had been seen publicly - nor, for that matter, had they been seen by the yet-to-be-identified subjects themselves.
Bush said he hoped Blair, his staunch ally in the Iraq war, would like the one he painted of him.
"I like it," he added. "I like it because it conveys a compassionate person and a strong person and a reliable friend."
Accompanying many of the portraits are photographs of Bush with the leader he painted, along with gifts. On display with Bush's portrait of Blair is a book of Churchill's speeches that Blair gave to Bush with the inscription, "To George, my ally and my friend."
Perhaps his favourite portrait, he said, was the one he did of his father George Bush, 89, who served as president from 1989 to 1993.
"He's a great listener, as you know, and when it came to diplomacy, he was a master at befriending people to find common ground," he said. "It was a joyful experience to paint him. I painted a gentle soul."
Bush took up painting - starting with his pets, then going on to landscapes before advancing to portraits - because "there's a Rembrandt trapped in this body (and) I'm a driven person. I want to get better."
"I wanted to make sure that the last chapters of my life were full," added the former president, who was inspired in part to take brush in hand by British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, an avid amateur painter.
"And painting, it turns out, would help occupy not only space, but kind of open my mind."
Bush, who was the 43rd president, signs his works "43." He has quipped: "I tell people that the signature on my paintings is worth more than the paintings."
Agence France-Presse and Associated Press