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PEN VS SWORD

“Nothing much has changed”: 5,000 years of war, illustrated

Seymour Chwast
“Chwast’s arsenal”
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

As a teenager growing up in the Bronx in the 1940s, design legend Seymour Chwast was struck by an 1918 essay by leftist intellectual Randolph Bourne called War is the Health of the Statea polemic against World War I. The essay, which Chwast says “showed that nations need wars to keep the economy going,” made an indelible impact on his life. “There must be another way to solve economic problems,” he recalls thinking at the time. 

Chwast would go on to co-found Push Pin Studios with Edward Sorel, and Milton Glaser (designer of the I ♥ NY logo), which made a name for itself with its influential branding and commercial work in the 1960s and 1970s. But over the course of nearly 70 years, the Bronx-born graphic designer also used his drawing pen to wrestle with the theme of armed combat. In the process, Chwast, now 84, created a stockpile of anti-war posters, illustrations, infographics and even a handmade book that he self-published when he was 21—all rendered with characteristic wit in his expressive illustration style.

Seymour Chwast
‘War is Good Business, Invest Your Son,’ an iconic anti-war poster by Chwast from 1968.
Seymour Chwast
Another famous Chwast anti-war poster from 1968 that riffs off advertising, titled ‘End Bad Breath.’

On April 26, Chwast will launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise $94,000 to print a new book on the subject, titled Seymour Chwast at War with War: An Illustrated Timeline of 5,000 Years of Conquests, Invasions, and Terrorist Attacks.

Anchored by 35 new pen-and-ink drawings and woodcuts, Chwast packs his lifelong interest in political conflicts into one continuous historical timeline, capturing five millennia of bloody combat, starting from 3300 BC. “The reason for a timeline was for me to show that through the years, nothing much has changed,” he explains. “You have the British fighting the French, fighting the Russians…then the countries change… Ultimately, these wars mean nothing but a way for kings and presidents to gain more power for themselves and sacrifice the troops.”

Seymour Chwast
Haitian Revolution, 1791 – a page from Chwast’s new book, ‘At War with War’
Seymour Chwast
French Revolution, 1798
Seymour Chwast
Iraq War, 2006

Design critic Steve Heller, who edited the book, describes it as an ”illustrated record of world conflagrations that have taken their toll.”

“It is also a testament to Chwast’s continued deployment of art and design to protest mankind’s worst scourge,” Heller adds. “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.”

Chwast also says that the book has no ending, grimly explaining that his most recent illustration, a 2015 work about the militant group ISIL, is likely not going to be the last chapter. “It’s going to go on and I might have to do other illustrations,” he says. ”This is a dangerous world, we haven’t figured out to eliminate the possibility of war.”

An exhibit of Chwast’s anti-war drawings will also be on view at the Society of Illustrators in New York City, starting on April 28.

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