THE BLOG
01/04/2011 12:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Kissinger Controversy Recalls Provocative Art Piece

Five days after he was called "not a simple villain" by a Dec. 21 op-ed in the Washington Post for a recently released 1973 recording of him telling then-President Richard Nixon that Soviets gassing Jews was a humanitarian, not an American, problem, Henry Kissinger penned his own op-ed in the Post.

Reminding readers that he lost many family members in the Holocaust, the former secretary of state said it has been "hurtful" to see his comments taken out of context. "References to gas chambers have no place in political discourse, and I am sorry I made that remark 37 years ago," Kissinger wrote.

The recording and Kissinger's response have generated a good deal of media buzz -- a search for Kissinger and Nixon on Google News yields about 200 items -- but the discussions have been largely political and have ignored an interesting art angle to the story.

In 1979, Jerelle Kraus, art director of the op-ed page of the New York Times asked painter and long time New York Review of Books caricaturist David Levine to submit a drawing to accompany a piece by William Pfaff accusing Kissinger of war crimes.

Levine's submission, which takes up half a page on the first page of the first chapter of Kraus' book, All the Art That's Fit to Print (& Some That Wasn't): Inside The New York Times Op-Ed Page, showed the secretary of state with his tattooed back turned to the viewer.

"Tattooed on the diplomat's back are hallmarks of his career," noted Kraus. "Shoulder hairs become Arabic script, bombs fall on Cambodia, and Vietnam darkens; 'Richard' shares forearm billing with 'Mother'; and the shah of Iran and a Chinese dragon adorn the cheeks."

Kraus, who says the Times' op-ed page "prefigured" the blogosphere by three decades by inviting non-staffers to submit content, figured the op-ed editor Charlotte Curtis would allow Levine's drawing, because it was not nearly as critical as Pfaff's copy. She was wrong. After Curtis cut the drawing, the most Kraus could do was instruct the bookkeeper to cut Levine a full check, rather than the standard half-price "kill" fee.

"No book had been written about op-ed's 40-year history, let alone its groundbreaking art," Kraus says, explaining why she wrote the book.

Another artist included in the book is Mark Podwal, who started drawing for the Times' op-ed page in 1972 and who has illustrated many of Elie Wiesel's books.

Podwal stresses that Levine was not identifying Kissinger as anti-Jewish.

"None of the tattoos indicate anti-Semitism," Podwal says. "I don't interpret Kissinger's remark as anti-Semitic. It appears that to Kissinger it did not matter which of its countrymen the Russians were to gas. Kissinger is the ultimate opportunist willing to say anything to Nixon to confirm loyalty."

Podwal is unconvinced by Kissinger's apology. "To me, Kissinger's words and Levine's drawing both underscore how Kissinger had sold his soul to Nixon," he says.

Kraus agrees. "Kissinger is a lackey willing to sell out to his anti-Semitic boss. His apology is an elaborate defense that doesn't convey his eagerness, in a pinch, to mouth political expediencies," she says. "I don't accept the apology, since it's constructed over three decades after his utterances, and the person to whom he spoke, Nixon, isn't here to give his reaction."

Levine "despised" Kissinger, "whom he knew to be a hypocrite," she adds, but no one, Levine included, could have imagined that he would stoop so low as to say what he did about gassing Jews in Russia.

"Through Levine's drawing, we witness that once the outer layers of Kissinger's 'diplomacy' are peeled off, the naked truth is revealed," she says.

Image credit: David Levine, as published in All the Art That's Fit to Print (& Some That Wasn't): Inside The New York Times Op-Ed Page, courtesy of Jerelle Kraus.