A 5,000-year chronicle of human violence is the goal of illustrator Seymour Chwast’s new book project, which follows his almost six-decades of antiwar art. Seymour Chwast at War with War: An Illustrated Timeline of 5,000 Years of Conquests, Invasions, and Terrorist Attacks is currently funding on Kickstarter, while an exhibition of his antiwar work, from posters to publications, is on view at the Society of Illustrators. Seymour Chwast on War is installed amid the Society of Illustrators’s third floor dining room, with a long mural of firing tanks, crashing planes, paratroopers, and mangled human bodies presiding above the tables, while ephemera fills cases near the bar and posters line the brick walls. These include some of his more iconic antiwar art, characterized by his wry wit, like the Vietnam War-era “War Is Good Business Invest Your Son” and “End Bad Breath,” in which a green-faced Uncle Sam has the bombing of Hanoi visible in his gaping maw.
“Whether defensive or aggressive, liberating or subjugating, all wars are ultimately transgressive acts where culture and humanity are held hostage to ideology, greed, and power,” states author and art director Steven Heller in his exhibition introduction. “Although Chwast’s art won’t put an end to war, it invites us to think about the consequences — and, more important, who ultimately benefits from the spoils.”
Heller is the editor for Seymour Chwast at War with War, which is presented on Kickstarter by Designers & Books, an “advocate for books as an important source of inspiration for creativity, innovation, and invention.” The Bronx-born Chwast is often recognized for his role as a co-founder of the influential graphic design-focused Push Pin Studios, started with fellow Cooper Union alumni Milton Glaser, Reynold Ruffins, and Edward Sorel. Yet alongside his bold and colorful commercial work, he’s also long been involved in artist books, which often have a rawer style, such as his 1957 Book of Battles. His first antiwar book, it has nine linocuts representing hundreds of years of showdowns, and the current project is in a way an extension of this initial work, his illustrations in pen and ink and on woodcuts extending this history of bloodshed. A Teutonic knight spears a man in the 1283 Prussian conquest, elephants pummel people in the Punic Wars, skulls are piled high in a representation of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, and a soldier is posed in profile in Chwast’s woodcut for the 2006 Iraq War.
The exhibition at the Society of Illustrators can be a bit awkward to peruse if you’re not there to dine below the carnage, being that some of the work is installed right above the tables and some people don’t like their lunch interrupted with random art staring (go figure). However, it’s worth a look for a glimpse into the prolific career of an influential graphic designer who has long doubled as an advocate for peace.