DAZZLED! CAMOUFLAGE DESIGNED TO CONFUSE RATHER THAN HIDE: SOME WWI EXAMPLES FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION

I was surprised this morning to see in the parking area of my condo a new vehicle appearing something like a cross between a Jeep and a Hummer painted with a camouflage pattern that looked like a pixelated computer screen.

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I was especially drawn to the vehicle’s unusual paint job because I have been preparing to teach a course on the First World War at Florida International University in a couple of weeks and have been searching through the Wolfsonian-FIU museum collection for images of “Dazzle Painting,” a style of camouflage applied to warships and ocean liners converted into troop carriers during the Great War.

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The camouflage painting of these ships appeared to be drawing on Vorticism, a Cubist and Futurist inspired avant-garde artistic movement which sprang to life in Great Britain just prior to the outbreak of hostilities. In 1914, a group of discontented artists working at the Omega Workshops splintered off to form a competing workshop, styled the Rebel Art Centre. Under the leadership of Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), the group had published a Vorticist manifesto titled, Blast. The irreverent manifesto opened with the line: “Long live the great art vortex sprung up in the centre of this town!” and followed with a salvo of free-verse diatribe, cursing the staid establishment and blessing artistic revolutionaries:

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While the self-proclaimed “Vorticists” organized a single exhibition in the United Kingdom in 1915 and published a second issue of Blast, the group disbanded soon after, as the patriotic demands of the all-consuming Great War, mobilization, and death claimed their ranks.

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The library holds only a couple of rare books that highlight the “Dazzle Painting” technique, the first being a monograph illustrating fourteen woodcuts by Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949).

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Wadsworth was a Post-Impressionist painter and friend of Wyndham Lewis. After a brief flirtation with Futurism, Wadsworth committed himself to the Vorticists, signing on to the Manifesto published in the inaugural issue of Blast. A little more than a month later, however, Britain had declared war on Germany and the world was forever changed. Wadsworth contributed to the Vorticist Exhibition held at the Doré Gallery, and to the second “war issue” of Blast, but he enlisted in the Navy soon afterwards. Several other Vorticists died in the war, while others (like Lewis) survived but lost their faith in the “machine age.”

It was the devastating success of the German “Untersee” or U-boats that could hide underwater and torpedo British shipping that inspired the British to introduce a “dazzle” art loosely tied to the revolutionary artwork of the Vorticists.

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Although the maritime artist Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971) has been credited with inventing “Dazzle Painting” while serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, he did have help. Invalided out of the war in 1917, Edward Wadsworth also supervised the camouflaging of more than 2,000 ships, adapting Vorticist-derived imagery to render them more difficult targets to enemy submarines. Ironically, it was in Burlington House, at the very traditional Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, London that the “Dazzle Section” was created. Rather than attempting to make ships invisible through the application of a “drab” gray paint schema, the group’s goal was to develop bold new zigzag patterns of camouflage that could be painted onto warships and troopships to confuse and hinder submariners from locking onto a target through periscopes.

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A special number of the English periodical, The Studio, published in 1918 used a camouflage pattern for its cover and included war themed artwork by distinguished British artists.

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Two of the illustrations inside reproduced paintings by John Everett (1876 – 1949) and Capt. Cecil King which depicted merchant ships employing the “Dazzle Painting” form of camouflage.

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Another item in the Wolfsonian library’s collection, a rare book illustrated by E. G. Fuller and published at the war’s end to highlight the exploits of the Union-Castle Line, provides images of ships employing the “dazzle” camouflage.

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The Union Castle ships’ profiles were painted in a mishmash of stripes and bands so that whether traveling alone or in convoy, it would be difficult to distinguish the bow or stern of a ship. The British Admiralty assumed that this would make it difficult for U-boat captains to calculate size and speed, and the correct position and heading of a potential target. All of which leads me back to car in the lot that inspired this post in the first place. Given that we are not talking about a race car, if the paint job on the vehicle in question is not designed to make it invisible, are we to assume that it is designed to to make it difficult for a policeman with a radar gun to detect its speed, or merely to attract attention?!

~ by "The Chief" on August 6, 2014.

2 Responses to “DAZZLED! CAMOUFLAGE DESIGNED TO CONFUSE RATHER THAN HIDE: SOME WWI EXAMPLES FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION”

  1. A friend of mine did a documentary some years back on Abbott Thayer, an American painter much collected by Freer, so one doesn’t encounter too many of his works. He did lots of angels (!) and some murals – just saw one at the Bowdoin College Art Museum. However he was very involved, but rather rejected by the Americans, in creating camouflage for ships – so did a lot of work for the Brits. His contention was (according to her research) that if artists can create the illusion of 3 D space out of 2 D, they should be able to do the reverse. He studied very carefully camouflage in the natural world, and came to the conclusion that the key was in breaking up the plane of vision – thus his zig-zag patterns.

    Wonder what he would think of the ubiquitous camouflage uniforms of the military now?

    –Nina

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