Great Jewish Wisdom, Rendered by Great Jewish Artists

Designers team up to put a Semitic spin on an old ad campaign.

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Voice & Visions / Seymour Chwast

The "Great Ideas of Western Man" was a famous magazine advertising campaign for Container Corporation of America that ran from 1950 to 1975 and was meant to, well, make people feel great about the ideas of Western man. Prominent modern artists and designers—among them Paul Rand, Ben Shahn, Saul Bass, Herbert Bayer—were paired together with historic quotations from the likes of Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Paine, providing moving visual interpretations of enduring words.

In early 2011, Arnold Schwartzman, a graphic designer and the Academy Award-winning director for the 1981 documentary film Genocide (1981), was asked by the Jewish-interests philanthropy the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to be the creative director of a new poster campaign. The campaign's benefactor, Harold Grinspoon, had long been inspired by the "Great Ideas" and wanted to revive the concept with inspiring quotations by Jewish luminaries, visually interpreted by Jewish artists and designers. The Foundation's objective was to produce a series of posters that would be presented to Jewish youngsters and adults in order to foster pride in their heritage.

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"I have always been intrigued by the fact that so many of the world's leading graphic designers were Jews," Schwartzman told me, referring to the sons of Depression-era immigrants in America for whom opportunities were somewhat limited and so became commercial artists. "They had emerged from a culture that observed the biblical admonition: 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image...' Once released from the bonds of their past, these creatives were able to embrace a more secular world allowing them to finally emerge as masters of their craft."

Working closely with the foundation's project manager Madeline Calabrese, the London-born Schwartzman and his wife Isolde defined the scope of the project. Meanwhile, the foundation consulted a team of scholars to identify a number of quotations from Jewish history and to write related commentaries. Schwartzman's first job was to devise a name and logotype. "I felt that the two words 'Voices & Visions' summed up the two components of the campaign, at the same time the intertwined V's formed a perfect Star of David," he explains.

Each quotation was chosen to represent a different aspect of human behavior. Schwartzman provided the list of quotations to each of the invited designers to choose from them on a first-come, first-served basis. The initial plan was for a set of 12 posters, but the number was eventually expanded to 18. Schwartzman took Susan Sontag's "Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech." Ivan Chermayeff selected "A community is too heavy to carry alone," from Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:10. Paula Scher's was "When I marched in Selma, I felt my legs were praying," from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. And Seymour Chwast made a portrait of Maimonides, who pronounced, "A miracle cannot prove what is impossible. It only confirms what is possible."

Two sets of a limited edition are signed by each artist and presented in a portfolio. Each poster has wraparound vellum containing the relevant commentary. They can be viewed at the V&V website. Like "Great Ideas," there are some inspiring quotes, but nothing takes me back to my own grandfather's living room more than Art Paul's rendition of Rabbi Nachman of Breslau's "If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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