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Special Collections

D.B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library


Graphic designer and illustrator Seymour Chwast evades crisp categorization. His trailblazing, seventy-year career began at midcentury, during a time of drastic change in the graphic arts. During the late 40s and 50s, American illustration was dominated by the simulated small town charm of Norman Rockwell, and the slick but false assurances of the Westport School. The Westport illustrators produced fiction illustrations and advertisements for magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. The approach was stylish but often anodyne. According to Chwast, the careful rendering of a Westport picture belied artificial narratives. “They were the enemy,” Chwast proclaimed. “They represented an America that never really existed.” In response, Chwast wove acts of creative rebellion into every aspect of his work. He rejected tradition in both subject matter, favoring provocative and political topics, and in form, embracing a flat, graphic style that was well-suited to clever concepts and counter-narratives.This research project examined these creative rebellions via a curated exhibition of Chwast’s pathbreaking and provocative anti-war posters, publications, animations, and picture books called Flat Out Rebellion: The Rule-Breaking Career of Designer-Illustrator Seymour Chwast. I completed this project as part of an independent study in the D.B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library in fall 2022 under the invaluable supervision of curator Skye Lacerte. My research began with a literature review of biographical and critical secondary sources which helped to inform my curatorial themes. Additionally, I transcribed an oral history audio recording that professor D.B. Dowd conducted with Chwast during his 2015 visit to campus, which was a rich primary source. Next, I curated a physical exhibition using materials from both the Seymour Chwast Collection and the Ink Tank Archive that was installed at the Kagan Grand Stair in the John M. Olin Library from December 1, 2022 to February 12, 2023. I contributed to each aspect of the exhibition, including curation, writing panel copy, designing the title treatment and exhibition panels, and creating an exhibition catalog under the guidance of exhibitions manager, Jessi Cerutti, and exhibitions graphic designer and preparator, Ian Lanius. Flat Out Rebellion was well-received by staff, students, and faculty. Several undergraduate classes as well as a local graphic design studio scheduled curator tours and it was so rewarding to share the work with audiences new to Chwast’s work. Curation is a form of educating—a way of making new ideas accessible for viewers. As a new MFA student at Washington University two years ago, I was eager to use our special collections but had limited knowledge of the contents. Viewing curated collections of our materials on library blog posts and in the exhibition cases at Olin Library and West Campus sparked my research interests and transformed me into an avid user of our special collections materials. I hope that Flat Out Rebellion will do the same for others, driving students to the Chwast collection for additional research on this influential figure in the history of visual culture.



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