Thursday, November 27, 2014

Aaron Hegert | Thayer's Concealing Coloration

Gerald H. Thayer (c1909), Male Ruffed Grouse in Forest
When the first edition of Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom was published in 1909, the author of record was artist-naturalist Gerald H. Thayer. His father Abbott H. Thayer wrote the introduction, while also contributing heavily to every aspect of the book, which bore as its subtitle An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern: Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Discoveries.

Among the Thayers’ closest friends was the naturalist and wildlife artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes. In 1956, Fuertes’ daughter, Mary Fuertes Boynton•, recalled that Abbott Thayer “wanted people to see for themselves what he had discovered…He was constantly devising new means of persuasion: placing woodpecker skins upon photos of trees against sky, hanging papier-maché models of patterned oryx heads in trees, taking people into the wood to look for themselves at a mounted peacock concealed in bright sunlight” (p. 128).

Of the many persuasive images in Concealing Coloration, few are as accomplished as a small, intricate watercolor painting (reproduced facing p. 38) by the book’s author, the younger Thayer, of a Male Ruffed Grouse in the Forest. It epitomized what the Thayers believed was the only legitimate option for bird artists—the immersion of the subject in its natural setting, most easily accomplished by (in Abbott’s words) “making a background wholly out of the bird’s colors” (Boynton, p. 214). This led to painful letters between the Thayers and a distraught Fuertes, with the latter being pressured by publishers to paint clearly identifiable birds (in the subsequent handbook tradition), free of the clutter of backgrounds.

Gerald Thayer’s ruffed grouse painting, wrote Fuertes’ daughter, “is a wonderful work of art, perhaps greater than anything Louis ever did. He took six months to paint it (he painted very few pictures at all), and he never made that adjustment to the world that would insure a normal means of earning a living for his family. The advice he gave Louis was good, but Louis could not take it and live…[Abbott Thayer] made an Eden for his children that was not of the world, worldly, yet he left them ill equipped to live with that world, and without the financial means that would enable them to live without it” (p. 217).

Photos of mimetic holes (1909), Concealing Coloration

In a later section of Concealing Coloration, there is a wonderfully curious page [above] comprised of what the Thayers describe as “Bits of animals’ patterns, all representing holes… Among these are mingled reproductions of actual holes to show how close is the resemblance” (p. 159).

I was reminded of these pages from the Thayers' book when I was recently made aware of the work of Aaron Hegert, an American photographer who teaches at Whittier College in CA. Motivated in part by his interest in the Thayer demonstrations, Hegert has produced a camouflage-themed limited edition book (called Action, Time and Vision) of photographs and photographic experiments, some of which are “take-offs” on the images in Concealing Coloration. Of those, I was especially struck by a page spread [below] in which he has juxtaposed the two pages discussed in this blog post, the page of photographs of holes and his interesting revisionist look at Gerald Thayer’s ruffed grouse painting, in which the subject is even more greatly obscured by bringing in bits of the background.

Aaron Hegert (2014), spread from Action, Time and Vision

A selection of Hegert’s images are available online as is a preview of the book.

• See Mary Fuertes Boynton, Louis Agassiz Fuertes: His Life Briefly Told and His Correspondence (NY: Oxford University Press, 1956).

Monday, November 24, 2014

Laura Levin on Camouflage & Performance Art

Above The dust jacket of a new important book: Laura Levin, Performing Ground: Space, Camouflage and the Art of Blending In. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. The following is an excerpt from its promotional text—

Performing Ground is the first book to explore camouflage as a performance practice, arguing that the act of blending into ones environment is central to the ways we negotiate our identities in and through space. Laura Levin tracks contemporary performances of camouflage through a variety of forms—performative photography; environmental, immersive, and site-specific performance; activist infiltration; and solo artworks—and rejects the conventional dismissal of blending in as an abdication of self. Instead, she contemplates the empowering political possibilities of "performing ground," of human bodies intermingling with the material world, while directly engaging with the reality that women and other marginalized persons are often relegated to the background and associated with the properties of space. Performing Ground engages these questions through the works of some of today's most exciting performance artists…

Camouflage Skirts: A Sartorial Disaster

Rebecca Palmer (1884), Crazy Quilt
Above An example of a crazy quilt, made with silk and velvet by Rebecca Palmer (1884). Collection of the Brooklyn Museum. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

When Cubist artworks were first exhibited in the US at the Armory Show in New York (1913), followed by the wartime adoption of dazzle painting for ship camouflage (1917), the public compared them to the crazy quilts at county fairs.


Anon, in “Perth Prattle,” Sunday Times (Perth, Western AU), Sunday, June 2, 1918, p. 15—

The “camouflage” skirt is here, writes “Lady Kitty” in the Adelaide Observer. The cretonne skirt is a sartorial disaster. There is not an article in the whole of ones wardrobe that could possibly “go” with the skirt. It made its first appearance in Sydney, where six and eight guineas were asked—and given—for these camouflage skirts. They are of silk, but such silk! It is most suitably called “crazy.” This demented silk starts at being a wonderful pattern in colors which absolutely pale the gorgeousness of all Eastern color magnificence, when suddenly it is camouflaged with great patches of dullish background. Most weird. Camouflage, you know, is to make things appear other than what they really are—to disguise them, in fact, so that the crazy silk sets out to be a very striking fabric which it is suddenly camouflaged by broad strips of plain color which quite disguise its original identity, but really make it more striking still. Camouflage parties, at which people wear camouflaged fancy dress, have become quite a rage for funding-raising purposes; and if guests are ingenious enough the result is screamingly funny. 


Anon, in The Week, The World’s News (Sydney NSW), Saturday, April 13, 1918, p. 14—

Dame Fashion is a fool, and that is putting it mildly. She decrees that women must adopt camouflage for their dress. What need is there for any such thing? Hasn’t woman camouflaged ever since Eve took Adam in over the apple? Of course she has, and will continue to do it just whenever it suits her ideas. If she wants to win a post that wheedling won’t accomplish, she camouflages her face with tears, and lo, she arrives at the desired end. And what she can do with rouge and powder passes all understanding. It is camouflage carried to a fine art. What man could tell that the short-frocked, finely-complexioned, sixteen-year-old hatted person at a distance was over forty and the mother of six? This is camouflage, and with a vengeance, and yet Fashion wants to add to it by use of dresses. If it means that plain cotton stuff at 1s 2d the yard, six yards for 6s 6d, can be so faked by the skillful dressmaker as to appear like a silk confection at a guinea a yard, by all means camouflage. But if it means turning a probable ten-guinea costume into a twenty-pounder, then camouflage is a miserable failure. Everything depends upon what that fickle jade, Fashion, is after. Usually she strives to deplete the purse of the hard-working husband or father, but if in this case, as in the case of ships, the object is to save—then camouflage for ever.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Was Credit Camouflaged? | Roosevelt Murals

William Andrew Mackay booklet on Roosevelt murals (1944)
Here's yet another post about American muralist William Andrew Mackay, who was an early contributor (some say the earliest) to World War I ship camouflage. In previous posts, his name has come up frequently, because of his own achievements but also because of the work that was done by other artists who had attended his NYC camouflage school. Aside from camouflage, at one time he was a widely known muralist, having created prominent works for the Library of Congress, 1939 World's Fair, Minnesota House of Representatives, and others.

As a muralist, perhaps his most famous achievement is a set of massive murals in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Completed in 1935, the famous murals are 34 feet high and 62 feet wide, covering an area of 5,230 square feet. Mackay died on the street of a heart attack in 1939. In 1944, the museum published a posthumous booklet, written by Mackay and A.A. Canfield of the New York State Department of Public Works, titled The Murals in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall (NYC: American Museum of Natural History, in which it is twice stated that the murals “were painted by William Andrew Mackay."

More recently, in a process requiring two years to complete, the Roosevelt Rotunda murals were restored and reopened to the public on Roosevelt's birthday, October 27, 2012. In various news reports, the public was reminded that the man who made them was Mackay, described as "a pioneer in the development of ship camouflage in World War I." 

That said, we found it of interest to happen upon a long-forgotten news article titled “’T.R.’ Memorial Murals Painted by Pittsburgher,” published in The Pittsburgh Press, on October 30, 1936—

A former left handed trumpet player from Pittsburgh was the artist who actually painted the murals in the [Roosevelt Rotunda at the] New York State Theodore Roosevelt Memorial…

The man who created the murals, it was discovered today, was Cliff Young, who earned his way through the Art Institute of Pittsburgh by playing a trumpet. He is left handed.

It was not known that Mr. Young had done the work, as the booklets which carry a description of the memorial building have referred only to William Andrew Mackay, winner of the competition held between 25 nationally known artists who submitted sketches.

Responsible for the discovery of the part played by the left-handed trumpeter was Willis Shook, [founder and] director of the art school who stumbled upon his former pupil on a recent trip to New York.

Mr. Mackay directed the execution, employing Mr. Young to do the work, according to Mr. Shook.…

Mr. Young twice painted in his own portrait in the murals, although he hung a beard on his face in order to carry out the scheme of the original designs [as in his self-portrait as Vladimir near the bottom of the mural on Russian history].…

Cliff Young, Figure Drawing Without a Model (1945), p. 42.

With additional sleuthing, we found out that Cliff Young (1905-1985) was a painter and cartoonist who worked for DC Comics during World War II as an illustrator of Green Arrow [Wikipedia article includes one of Cliff Young's covers].

He also wrote two books about learning to draw, Figure Drawing Without a Model (NY: House of Little Books, 1946), and Drawing Drapery from Head to Toe (same publisher, 1947, later reprinted by Dover, 2007).

Originally from Pittsburgh, he studied at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Grand Central School of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, National Academy of Design, Carnegie Institute, and Art Students League of New York.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bittern Camouflage

Above An American Bittern in camouflage stance in the Myaka River State Park, Florida, as photographed by Sabine Rodens (2006), from Wikipedia Commons.


Frederick C. Gould, "Camouflage" in The Sydney Stock and Station Journal [quoted from The Westminster Gazette] on Friday, April 11, 1919, p. 2—

The Bittern took Camouflage lessons,
For he wanted to look like a stick,
And a Futurist artist in khaki
Taught him the vanishing trick;
He painted his feathers with markings,
And drilled him to stand like a log,
Till he looked not a bit like a Bittern
But just like a bit of the Bog.

Michael Torlen Remembers Hoyt L. Sherman

Photographs © Richard Koenig
Above We will never cease to be amazed by the illusionistic photographs (he calls them "photographic prevarications") of American artist Richard Koenig, who teaches in the Department of Art and Art History at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.

They are more than photographs; they are puzzling photographic views of dimensional constructions that were partly made from photographs. They are settings that have much to do with experiments in perception, not in a scientific sense, but more in keeping with the work that was done by artist and optical physiologist Adelbert Ames II in the 1930s-40s. Known collectively as the Ames Demonstrations, many of these were reconstructed in the late 1940s at Ohio State University by art professor Hoyt L. Sherman (see story below in this posting).

In one of Koenig's photographs (above top), a brick pavement (including a manhole) appears to levitate in the corner of a room. But in fact, the pavement pattern is comprised of smaller, precisely distorted photographs, some of which run up the wall. Nothing is actually floating. In the photograph below that one, we see what might at first appear to be two identical stepladders, side-by-side. The one on the right is indeed a stepladder, but the second one consists of smaller, photographic tiles that are entirely flat on the floor.


In the 1960s, among the graduate students who worked with Hoyt Sherman at Ohio State University was the artist Michael Torlen, who would later go on to become a Professor of Art at Purchase College, State University of New York. Now Professor Emeritus, Torlen recently published a paper about Sherman's ideas and Torlen's memories of him. The article is titled "Hit with a brick: The Teachings of Hoyt L. Sherman" in Visual Inquiry: Learning and Teaching Art. Vol 2 No 3 (2013), pp. 313-326. In the following, he recalls what happened at Sherman's first meeting with a group of graduate students at OSU in 1963 (p. 314)—

As we settled into our chairs, Sherman handed out a course outline and began his lecture. Then he turned and walked over to a table stacked with a variety of materials, include a pile of red bricks. Seemingly distracted, Sherman stopped discussing his syllabus and started searching for something beneath the brick pile. He stacked and re-shuffled the bricks, sorting and clinking them loudly against each other, until he suddenly turned and hurled a brick directly at our heads.

Certain he had aimed the brick at me, I scrambled to get out of the way, murmuring, "Is this guy crazy?" Sherman was laughing. The brick he threw was a piece of foam rubber, the same size as the other bricks, painted brick red. Sherman explained that we were unable to distinguish the foam rubber brick from the cluster of real bricks, because our past experience, our associations and our memory of bricks influenced us. Our reactions developed from the false assumption that similar things are identical.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Dazzle Camouflage | Deception & Illusion

On Monday, November 17, 2014, UNI Professor and Distinguished Scholar Roy R. Behrens will talk about World War I ship camouflage in a program titled Deception & Visual Illusion: World War I Ship Camouflage. He will share historic photographs of various disruptive schemes known at the time as "dazzle camouflage." Designed by artists, graphic designers, architects, theatre set designers, and vision scientists, these were intended to throw off the calculations of torpedo gunners on German U-boats (submarines). The event is free and open to the public.