Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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Camouflage at The Imperial War Museum

Date: 22-04-2007
Owning Institution: The Imperial War Museum
Publication:   Sunday Telegraph Reviews 2004-2013    
Subject: 20th Century    Now  

“Camouflage”, at the Imperial War Museum, is an exhibition about art imitating nature, in the cause of naked self-preservation. A truncated history of the development of camouflage, mostly in war but also in peacetime, it explores its subject through an enfilade of galleries so crowded with exhibits that the visitor is occasionally liable to feel ambushed by a surfeit of object lessons. Items on display include paintings, photographs, instructional films for soldiers, guns, model battleships and a sprawling miscellanea of other things, including a pair of wearable rubber moulds of human feet intended to enable paratroopers, landing on beaches, to disguise the traces of their arrival as the mere meanderings of barefooted beachcombers.

The earliest camouflage costume on show at the Imperial War Museum, developed several million years ago, is modelled by a Bark-mimic Butterfly – a creature shown, in one of several continual-loop films in the display, almost but not quite imperceptibly blending into the trunk of an oak tree. The earliest hunter-gatherers must have used camouflage of sorts to conceal themselves from their prey, and almost certainly took lessons in how to do so from the natural world. But the recorded history of the human uses of such disguise begins, apparently, with the prehistoric Celts. The low-toned weaves and patterns of tartan, now regarded as distinctively Scottish but once worn by Celtic peoples who travelled as far afield as central Asia, seem originally to have been designed for the purpose of camouflage. In 1582, the Scottish Renaissance humanist George Buchanan noted that Scots “delight invariegated garments, especially stripes … their ancestors wore plaids of many colours, and numbers still retain this custom, but the majority now in their dress prefer a dark brown, imitating nearly the leaves of the heather, that when lying upon the heath in the day, they may not be discovered by the appearance of their clothes.” Camouflage seems to have been something of a Scottish speciality, famously taken one step further by Malcolm’s troops, marching on Macbeth’s castle disguised as trees. In the words of the hapless Messenger, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “As I did stand my watch upon the hill, / I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought / The wood began to move.”

In fact, the use of camouflage in warfare was unusual and generally unnecessary until the invention of the rifle in the nineteenth century. Up until then, soldiers did not need to disguise themselves, since most battles were fought at close range, even those involving troops armed with muskets. Uniforms tended to be bright and bold, assertive plumage designed to instil pride and self-confidence. Camouflage announced the dawn of a new and more timorous age – a costume of subterfuge and self-concealment designed for wars in which bravery has been terminally outmatched by weaponry and in which even heroes need to hide.

So it is that the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition begins in earnest with the start of the First World War. C.R.W. Nevinson’s painting of 1917, simply entitled A Tank, is an apt image of the onward march of military technology – a squat behemoth on caterpillar tracks lurching through a barren wasteland, against a sky lit up by jagged flashes of light. On closer inspection, it also turns out to be an image of the creeping advance of new types of camouflage – under its coating of mud, the vehicle has been decorated with thin threads of red and green, a kind of tartan for tanks.

One of the principal catalysts for the development of modern camouflage was the invention of the aeroplane, used initially in war for reconnaissance purposes. The advent of military reconnaissance aircraft, armed with aerial cameras, meant that heavy artillery and other military installations suddenly became much more vulnerable to detection. Big guns were painted, or covered with nets, or draped in tarpaulins painted in broken shapes designed to blend into the surrounding landscape. In Paul Nash’s A Howitzer Firing, of 1918, four British artillerymen cower beneath a grid of netting as shells explode in a splintered sky of orange and scarlet.

Because early reconnaissance photographs were shot in black and white, camouflage artists were charged with creating shapes and contrasts that would confuse and mislead, but they were left free to use whatever colours they wanted. For a brief period, an unpredictable and uneasy alliance developed between the visual language of camouflage and the styles of early modern art. The pioneer of modern camouflage was a Frenchman called Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scevola, a conventional portrait-painter from Paris. He was hostile to Cubism but thought its webs and meshes of interlocking forms perfectly adapted to the purposes of camouflage. Using its techniques to conceal objects was, he believed, a way of taking revenge on the pre-eminent avant-garde style of the pre-war years. Cubism had claimed among other things to be a new and more rounded means of depicting the things of this world, yet de Scevola used it to make things look as though they had vanished into thin air. “In order to deform totally the aspect of the object”, he later claimed, “I had to employ the means that Cubists used to represent it.” This helps to explain the often-repeated story about Picasso’s response to the sight of a camouflaged cannon on the streets of Paris during the First World War – “C’est nous qui avons fait ca!” – “We’re the ones responsible for that!”

The belief that Cubist style might make for appropriately confusing patterns of military design was reflected in much early camouflage, which must have been colourfully anarchic to judge by some of the more recondite items on display. The show includes a notebook full of camouflage designs for heavy artillery by Andre Mare, an intimate of the Dadaists, who dreamed of turning cannons into objects resembling avant-garde assemblages or sculptures. Whether such strategies were effective remains unrecorded, but reconnaissance pilots must certainly have been surprised to find themselves flying over battlefields so full of weapons painted in avant-garde patterns they resembled vast outdoor art installations – sculpture parks infused with lethal intent.

Several modernists who saw active service, and became involved in their respective armies’ camouflage corps, seem to have fantasised about the luxury of treating war as a laboratory of visual experiment. The German painter Franz Marc designed a whole range of military tarpaulins which he described, in a letter home to his wife from the front, as “painted in roughly pointillistic designs in the manner of bright natural camouflage”. Marc created nine tarpaulins in all, which he conceived as a kind of miniature history of the early modern movement, done in styles ranging from that of Monet, to that of the Cubists, to that of the pioneering Russian proto-abstractionist Kandinsky. Marc calculated that these pictures would only ever be seen from the air (all that survives of such designs in the IWM’s collections is a single fragment of “German multi-coloured camouflage fabric” which may not even be by his hand). He wondered in particular about “what effect the ‘Kandinsky’ will have at 2000 metres.” Reality punctured his musings and he never did find out, dying in a cavalry charge at Verdun in 1916.

The most vivid examples of so-called “modernist” camouflage were the so-called “dazzle ships” decorated for the British navy by an army of artists improbably led by Norman Wilkinson, a painter of traditional seascapes. A whole fleet of models, painted in patterns reminiscent of Vorticism – the British modernist answer to Cubism and Futurism – are on display under glass at the Imperial war Museum, along with numerous designs prepared for the wartime shipyards and a hand-tinted film from the period showing the finished boats leaving harbour in all their garish, zebra-striped glory. Whether this can quite be counted camouflage is a moot point, since the result was a series of designs so visually conspicuous that they became flaunts of derring-do – a return under the pretext of camouflage, to the plumage principles of a more valorous and chivalric martial past. The effect, if any, was to create a visual field of ambiguity around the warships, which could not be hidden by “dazzle”, but might be made a lot harder to fire at (imagine a target on Op Art lines, designed by Bridget Riley). Their dizzyingly strange appearance won them a firm place in the affections of the men who manned them, to judge by the lyrics of a popular wartime song: “Captain Schmidt at the periscope / You need not fall or faint / For it’s not the vision of drug or dope / But only the dazzle paint.” Dazzle designs have their own poignancy, marking a rare moment in twentieth-century British taste when modern art achieved a genuine mass popularity.

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