Personal opinion, art an uncomfortable mix?


SEATTLE — Once celebrated by museums and collectors for his playful tweaking of Nazi iconography, renowned Seattle artist Charles Krafft has lately become the art world’s problem child.

After recently revealing his doubts about the Holocaust and insisting Hitler has been demonized, he was dropped from a group exhibit in Paris, and museums are rethinking their stance on his work and its meaning.

When San Francisco’s esteemed de Young Museum acquired Krafft’s 2003 piece, “Hitler Idaho” — a teapot fashioned as the Third Reich leader’s head — the accepted wisdom was that it was a wry take on the history of political violence.

The curator there described the piece as “Reinforcing the persistent belief that Hitler was a demonic and inhuman aberration …” and said it “reduces the feared Nazi leader to a spouting teapot wearing the yarmulke of the people he most despised.”

Indeed there was no reason to think otherwise. Krafft himself assured collectors and museums that his work was a poke at power, telling Salon in 2002: “I’ve always had a knack and a penchant for going toward humorous irony.”

No one is laughing now, given the artist’s recent comments, which he shows no sign of tempering.

“I don’t deny the Holocaust. I am skeptical about certain parts,” Krafft said in a phone interview the other day. “I’ve walked the camps and saw a gas chamber that I believe was a set built … to make a newsreel.”

Krafft’s public unraveling started in February, when Jen Graves, the art critic for Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger, wrote about his political 180, his views on the Holocaust and his participation in a podcast with the white nationalist website the White Network.

Recently, Krafft doubled down, appearing on National Public Radio’s “Studio 360” and telling host Kurt Andersen that Hitler is misunderstood.

“I think he’s been demonized excessively,” he told Andersen, who had questioned Krafft’s mental health. “I’m not trying to resurrect national socialism or Hitlerism, but my opinion of the man has changed considerably.”

Within days, organizers of the “Hey! Modern Art & Pop Culture / Part II” exhibit at the Halle Saint Pierre in Paris notified him that they didn’t want him on the bill.

“It doesn’t make me feel good,” Krafft, 65, said of the decision. “But I think it’s a ‘success du scandale.’”

Whatever you call it, Krafft, bespectacled and bearded and who seems a little hurt by what his words have wrought, has raised a lot of uncomfortable questions.

His work — delicate and exquisite pieces fashioned in the style of blue-and-white Delftware — have been celebrated for their cultural and political implications: Wedding cakes and bars of soap decorated with swastikas. A Thompson machine gun, made of porcelain. Monstrous symbols recast as beautiful objects.

Museums all over the country appreciated that irony, but in light of Krafft’s statements, those that hold his work are facing questions that speak to the very purpose of art.

Do they leave the work as it stands, and let the artist be who he is? Label the art explaining that Krafft wasn’t being ironic after all? Or pull it from exhibits, as the Paris museum did, lest it offend donors and visitors?

Tim Burgard, the deYoung’s American art curator, issued a statement in the wake of Krafft’s revelations, and his words about the “Hitler Idaho” teapot were considerably cooler than when it was gifted in 2007.

“If the artist were to state now, 10 years after its creation, that this teapot was intended as an homage to its subject,” Burgard stated, “it appears to have failed in visual terms.”

The Seattle Art Museum, which holds four Krafft pieces and last showed his Delftware Thompson Machine Gun in 2006, has been having internal discussions about Krafft.

“We are troubled to learn of his views, and they were not known when we acquired his work,” said SAM spokeswoman Cara Egan. “It is definitely something that is on our minds.”

At present, though, Egan said the museum has no plans to either exhibit Krafft’s work or get rid of it.

The Bellevue Arts Museum showed one of Krafft’s pieces in 2010 as part of its “Clay Throwdown!” exhibit. The piece wasn’t Nazi-related, but depicted “tabloid baddies” such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Amy Winehouse.

Nora Atkinson, a curator there, declined to comment, saying, “It’s such an explosive issue.”