Seymour Chwast’s graphic war on war

For his sequel to 1957’s A Book of Battles, graphic design legend Seymour Chwast chronicles 5,000 years of the world’s wars in a new volume’s black and white illustrations.

seymour chwast illustration war graphic design

The slim At War with War, published by Seven Stories Press and the result of a 2016 Kickstarter campaign, culls nearly 90 pages of antiwar drawings from the 86 year-old Chwast, who has long focused on the fruitlessness of hostile military campaigns and the violence of war in his work.

Most of At War with War‘s illustrations populate two-page spreads and are flanked with minimal copy. The text that accompanies the sometimes scratchy, blotty cartooning and foreboding silhouettes from the co-founder of New York City’s Push Pin Studios is a timeline of global wars, each event in red but for the war Chwast is visually spotlighting, which is set in black. Each date and curt description of the event on the timeline is often inclusive of the casualties associated with it. Fittingly, the copy has all the nuance of a newswire stream: “1890 U.S. troops massacre 350 Sioux at Wounded Knee”; “2004 Spain is rocked by terrorist attacks. Over 200 dead.”

seymour chwast illustration war graphic design

“The power of cartoons and caricatures shouldn’t be underestimated,” writes The Nation magazine publisher Victor Navasky in At War with War‘s introduction (see Hillary Chute’s recent Disaster Drawn for a similar argument).

After sitting with the words from Navasky, who notes that “Chwast has gone out of his way not to give us beautiful or ‘artistic’ pictures,” it’s difficult to ignore the critical relationship of visuals to what was an illegitimate war in Iraq—in particular, the rosy portrait of the conflict painted by American news organizations, or the equally illegitimate ban on the media’s photographs of American soldiers’ coffins coming back to Dover, Delaware (now lifted).

Chwast remembers Iraq’s “55,000 civilians killed” toward the end of his book’s timeline, and among his concerns is exactly the kind of thinking that motivates the censorship of war photojournalism. An editor’s choice to kill a photographer’s dispatch before it goes to print, or the Pentagon’s unconstitutional policy against media coverage of coffins coming home—Chwast looks at the consequences of war, but also at the steps taken by people in power to absolve a military power of its sins, to sanitize the theater of war.

Over a six-month period between 2004 and 2005, the Los Angeles Times found that six American newspapers (and two big magazines) ran almost no photographs of the war zone in Iraq that took more than 550 lives of U.S. soldiers and allies.

“We in the news business are not doing a very good job of showing our readers what has really happened over there,” a Star-Ledger editor, Pim Van Hemmen, told the paper at the time. “Writing in a headline that 1,500 Americans have died doesn’t give you nearly the impact of showing one serviceman who is dead.”

Chwast’s utilization of negative space supports the impact of the cartoons and their direct commentary on the bottomless toll of wars in At War with War, as unflinching graphic battlefield sequences—with the severity of the artist’s thick black pen strokes and dense woodcut illustrations against the bare white pages—often originate from a far corner or page border. The book’s sparsely adorned soldiers are given little more than a set of short dashes for facial expressions, and they get speared, burned at the stake, or lie face down in puddles of smudgy black blood. By the time Chwast closes-out his missive, it’s 2015. The conclusion looks a lot like the book’s first page, but this, the unforgiving cyclical property of war, is exactly the point.

“By making the case against the futility of war in visual terms,” writes Navasky, “Chwast has performed an invaluable service.”

Images © 2017 by Seymour Chwast. At War with War is available from Seven Stories Press.