Editor’s Note: The following article first appeared in the Spring 2016 Issue of PRINT Magazine. Enter for a chance to win a collection of Seymour Chwast’s work, including a signed print, a set of post cards and—provided the Kickstarter mentioned below is successfully funded—a copy of Chwast’s book, All the Wars: 5,000 Years of Conquests. Giveaway details here.
There is probably no more committed hawk or seasoned warrior than illustrator Seymour Chwast. His peaceful demeanor notwithstanding, for almost seven decades he’s fervently fought brush and nail on the front lines of what is decidedly an endless war against war. Chwast’s frequent salvos of acerbic visual commentary against the disease of warfare are welcome alternatives to drum rolls and saber rattlings. His Vietnam-era poster “War Is Good Business” was a peace-movement mantra, and “End Bad Breath,” showing bombs being dropped on Hanoi in Uncle Sam’s open mouth, is considered a classic of its time.
These posters and a selection of unique antiwar paintings, drawings and sketches are on view for the first time at the Society of Illustrators in New York City. The exhibition also marks the launch of a Kickstarter campaign to create Chwast’s new book, All the Wars: 5,000 Years of Conquests, Invasions and Terrorist Attacks, an illustrated record of the world’s conflagrations large and small. It is a testament to the 84-year-old Chwast’s deployment of art and design as heartfelt critiques about mankind’s worst and longest scourge.
All the Wars joins a long tradition of artists/critics (including Felix Vallotton, George Grosz and Frans Masereel) who have published anti-war bombshells. Chwast’s own 1957 woodcut-illustrated Book of Battles was an early attempt to merge art and protest without resorting to clichéd polemic. He illustrated nine famous and infamous battles—from Marathon in 490 B.C. to Ypres in the first World War—accompanied by historic quotations, the impact of which, as stated in the introduction, is “to give rise to a number of provocative speculations on the desirability of an enduring ‘Cease Fire!’”
A sardonic image and clever slogan will never earn him the Nobel Peace Prize, but that is of no concern. Chwast’s work, and specifically All the Wars, expresses his gut aversion to making war into the knee-jerk rallying cry to inflame the masses. It is not surprising that he admires the Marx Brothers’ anti-war satiric masterpiece Duck Soup, which so stunningly deflates war-fever bravado. Chwast’s sometimes-childlike style, like the Marx Brothers’ lunacy, while suggesting innocence, is also a sly reminder that war is not a game—video or otherwise. Despite the increased use of drones, war is raw; it comes down to human beings pushing buttons that kill and maim other human beings—regardless of what side they’re on, or no side at all.
What is eloquently stated through his paintings, drawings, posters and books is that war itself is the only victor. War is a creature that feeds on the horror it causes. Regardless of which side trumps the other, the lessons supposedly learned from one conflict return to fuel another. It’s a wonder Chwast and artists like him are not simply resigned to the fates. But that is not Chwast. As long as there’s breath, he has the will to educate and edify. And that’s exactly what All the Wars will do in spades.