Art, History, and its Revisions
An exhibit of portraits by former president George W. Bush which closed this past weekend at the Atlanta History Center invited comparisons to Cyclorama, the epic Battle of Atlanta painting housed at the museum.
The Cyclorama now includes extensive added context: side exhibits on its original painting, retouches made to appeal to Southern or Northern audiences, and its long journey in Atlanta.
The Bush exhibit limited its context to immigration with explainers on the process, statistics, and doors opening to stories of Common Ground. Immigration, the exhibit argues, is an issue that could transcend our current hyperpolarization.
The Iraq War wasn’t defended or debated. At least not in the displays.
Bush does defend it and continues to call it a “liberation” in this NPR interview which includes some clumsy language.
It’s unclear if “the history has finished being written yet” is a transcription error or his syntax, but it recalls many of his own and his supporters’ statements at the end of his presidency that an unbiased or complete history remains unwritten.
Apparently, even twenty years later.
As early as 2003 Bush accused critics of the Iraq invasion of “revisionist history.”
Bush’s pro-immigration policy preceded 9–11 and hearkens back to his 2000 campaign as a “compassionate conservative.”
In skipping over his presidency’s most consequential decisions the exhibit paints him in a better light.
The Cyclorama is a war scene, but one heavily romanticized and spared of too much gruesome imagery.
Bush’s portraits are folksy and sentimental. My father compared them to a painting my nephew made of a family dog.
In searching for reviews, I found several features and calendar listings in Atlanta media outlets, but no critical essays.
National art critics have reviewed the book and Bush’s previous paintings, often negatively and with their own warnings to separate the artist from his public relations.
The exhibit opened in Atlanta on April 12, ahead of Georgia’s May primary elections.
Most media coverage placed the Republican races in the foreground, with Establishment incumbents in an epic battle against a slate of challengers endorsed by former president Donald Trump.
Soon after the exhibit opened in Atlanta, Bush appeared at a Texas fundraiser for Gov. Brian Kemp.
Kemp and the other incumbents’ victories were hailed as the Establishment finally stopping Trump. At least in Georgia.
Bush, widely unpopular at the end of his own presidency, and criticized by Trump in his own run in 2016 was elevated as the last “good” Republican President.
Doing so meant seeing his era as decent and bipartisan, not as a forerunner to Trump.
In fact, the Bush era included a lost popular vote and conservative Supreme Court, jingoism, efforts to bar same-sex marriage, a right-wing media echo chamber and access-obsessed mainstream one that hoarded scoops for books.
All too familiar.
To drive home the contrast, on May 18, the Bush Institute hosted an event on “Free, Fair and Secure” elections, as a rebuke of Trump’s false election claims.
Even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting took part, eager to elevate an a reasonable Republican ex-president.
In his speech Bush made a gaffe when condemning Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: “The decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq. I mean of Ukraine.”
The paint was peeling.
The Cyclorama is still getting touched up. A video introduction now overlays the canvas at the top of each hour.
It gives voice to a Black union soldier in addition to the Confederate veteran still insisting on “the Lost Cause.”
Silhouetted visitors to the painting from several generations give conflicting, often personal responses.
The projection ends with the Atlanta skyline in back and a freight train riding the same railroad route the battle sprawled along.
A railroad underpass built in 1912 at Krog St. in Inman Park has become a people’s Cyclorama, an immersive concrete canvas of street art, graffiti, and pamphleteering.
Atlanta’s collective subconscious or disparate id.
And all of it easily painted over at any time.
On the evening after visiting the Cyclorama/Bush exhibit I walked through the tunnel again.
Abortion rights flyers and anger at the patriarchy, cartoon figures, disjointed messages, and, as always, memorials to the dead.
History, whether painted by the “winners” or unqualified amateurs, is tagged by us all.