If The Divine Comedy isn’t on Seymour Chwast’s book list, it isn’t because he’s unfamiliar with it. In keeping with his stated interest in “visual language referencing culture and literature,” Chwast—the founder of the legendary Push Pin Studios,* along with Milton Glaser and Edward Sorel—is the latest in a long line of noted artists to have provided a personal interpretation of Dante’s 14th-century epic poem (Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation, Bloomsbury USA, 2010).
His particular and distinctive approach enlists another layer of cultural reference beyond the literary work itself—the graphic novel. Chwast says: “I took advantage of the form to interpret the material in a contemporary manner. I changed scale and emphasis to fit the situation in opposition to the static, uniform boxes of most graphic novels.”**
The books that do make it onto his list offer a treasure trove of diverse visual imagery. Historical picture postcards; small-format Victorian ephemera; flora, fauna, and people in woodcuts by Hokusai; illustrations of the human-body-as-modern machine made by Fritz Kahn during the 1920s and ‘30s; photographs of Germans between the world wars; and the iconic photographs of The Family of Man (“I remember them all”). And he doesn’t ignore the 3-D potential of paper (“Meggendorfer was the undisputed master of the pop-up book”).
Similar to how the vast portfolio of his design work might be characterized, the books Chwast has chosen, as he describes them in his book list introduction, “contain things to ponder, ignore, memorize, and laugh and wonder at“—although relative to his own work, we would ignore “ignore”!
*For an overview of Push Pin Studios/Pushpin, Inc, see ”The Push Pin Phenomenon: Glaser, Chwast & Co.” by Véronique Vienne.
**”Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ as Graphic Novel by Seymour Chwast,” Huffington Post, September 2, 2010.
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