Karachi: Winston Churchill did not begin painting until he was 40. He used it in the manner Nehru practised yoga — as “a respite from crowding events and pulsating politics”. Churchill’s first attempt was not encouraging. He sat before a blank canvas intimidated, as many a beginner is, by its challenging expanse.
A visiting friend — Lady Hazel Lavery, herself an artist — sensed his apprehension. She squirted paint on his palette, and applying colour in vigorous strokes, exorcised his fears.
Over the next 48 years, Churchill produced more than 500 paintings. He composed directly on the canvas, painting whatever stood for him: a vase of camellias, the interior of Blenheim Palace, verdant landscapes, his holiday retreat Marrakesh, the goldfish pond at his country home Chartwell. Some paintings he sold. Others he gave away to friends and family members. A cache remained with his favourite daughter Mary Soames. She died in May 2014, bequeathing 38 of them to the British nation for display at Chartwell. Her heirs have put the others on the market for collectors who value his name more than his talent.
Ironically, Churchill’s antagonist Hitler tried to earn his living as an artist. Although more competent than Churchill, Hitler never achieved the recognition he craved. He took a reverse route. He escaped from art into politics. Paintings by Hitler — usually architectural studies of facades in Vienna or of rustic homes — carry the stigma of his name. At the end of the Second World War, many of his paintings were captured by the US Army. They are stored somewhere, hidden from public view, incarcerated in an arty Guantanamo Bay.
Former US President George W. Bush took up painting after he retired. His subjects understandably were not Gitmo prisoners. Bush preferred portraits of his pets and of world leaders such as a chipper Tony Blair, a glum Hamid Karzai, a famished President Putin, a depressed Dalai Lama, and Saddam whom Bush depicted as a circus clown complete with a red nose. A self-portrait that went viral on the Internet showed Bush having a shower. It is not the sort of study that would find a ready buyer.
Bush’s works were displayed recently at the George W. Bush Presidential Centre in an exhibition titled “The art of leadership”. Hitler and Churchill have stopped painting; Bush’s critics wish he would.
Hitler once told the British ambassador Nevile Henderson that he regarded himself as an artist, not a politician, that he wanted to end his life “as an artist”. There were echoes in that remark of the epitaph the Roman despot Nero uttered as he committed an assisted suicide: Qualis artifex pereo! (“What an artist is now about to perish!”) Churchill took a longer view. “When I get to heaven,” he said, “I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting.”
The only artistic talent Pakistan’s current leaders have exhibited is an aptitude for white-washing the graffiti of their previous pronouncements. In this, Asif Ali Zardari can be considered an Old Master. He continues to escape accountability for his unexplained affluence, for his dilatoriness while President in bringing his wife’s murderers to book, and for his usurpation of his in-laws’ property — the PPP. Meanwhile, his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari sulks in London haunted by the ghost of his mother.
Imran Khan pouts for a different reason. His microphone has been snatched from him, his call for defiant insurrection upstaged by the horrific slaughter at the Army Public School in Peshawar. To his chagrin, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif survives blithely in office, a patrician harijan, untouchable and untouched.
Suddenly, the Peshawar trauma has brought the colour khaki back on the palette of leadership. Smarting from the butchery of his soldiers’ children, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif acted swiftly. He “seized the hour” and declared war on the Taliban. He demanded constitutional cover that all future conviction of captured terrorists should be by his brisk military courts, not sluggish civilian ones.
An all-party committee of politicians acquiesced. By agreeing to pass an enabling amendment to the Constitution, though, they have knowingly taken a step that could well return them to the pavilion, leaving the crease to the umpire.
Who will exercise power in 2015? The apparent choices before the voters are not pleasant: a corrupt PPP, an incompetent Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), an inexperienced Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf or the seasoned game-spoiler MQM. The Pakistani Army may well decide that it too has a choice, if it is called upon to accept the burden of responsibility without authority.
Does Gen. Sharif harbour any Bonapartist inclinations? He may share Napoleon’s view of politicians: “They fade and disappear for lack of unity.” Or like that other French monolith General de Gaulle, once said: “Politicians are of no importance. What counts is who commands.”
The writer is an author and art historian
By arrangement with Dawn