Sunday, July 24, 2016

Roland Penrose | Cubism, Illusion and Camouflage

Roger Penrose, Impossible Triangle
Above The uncle of British mathematician Roger Penrose was the surrealist artist and art collector Roland Penrose. The former is commonly credited with the design of an illusionistic three-dimensional shape called the "impossible triangle" also called the Penrose triangle. A gif animation of that initially puzzling shape is available online. It has much in common with certain aspects of the Ames Demonstrations in psychology, as well as perspective-based illusions used for ground and naval camouflage during both World Wars. See our earlier posts on those subjects here and here.

Roland Penrose was an early important biographer of Pablo Picasso. He was greatly interested in cubism, which is frequently said to resemble disruptive, dazzle or "high difference" camouflage. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was also involved in wartime civilian camouflage. During WWII, he teamed up with other artists (notably Stanley William Hayter, John Buckland Wright, and Julian Trevelyan) in founding a company that provided questionable camouflage for industrial landmarks. Later, he taught camouflage and compiled an instructional guidebook, titled Home Guard Manual of Camouflage (October 1941), the cover of which is shown below.

Related to this, there is a passage from Penrose's notebooks, published in Elizabeth Cowling, ed., Visiting Picasso: The Notebooks and Letters of Roland Penrose. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2006, pp. 245-246, in which he talks about Picasso's reaction when he first saw (Penrose's nephew's) the impossible triangle in 1962—

Showed P[icasso] the impossible triangle. He looked at it, puzzled for some minutes, then started making other versions of it. "Your brother [sic] should have been a cubist," he said. "It's an attempt to catch the 4th dimension. They always say the cubists were trying to catch the truth—they were really trying to make a deception—just like this—cubism was full of deception. Your brother [sic] should have worked with us; we would have found a lot in common."

Roland Penrose book cover (1941)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dazzle | Wilkinson, Kerr and Archibald Phillips

Above This is the wonderful cover of the 4th issue of a UK publication called Stages, an online journal produced in connection with the Liverpool Biennial 2016.

Go here to find the website, where the entire issue (except the introduction, which is only on the site) can be downloaded as a pdf. It offers seven articles, with full-color illustrations, on various aspects of historic British ship camouflage (which originated in World War I), beginning with the story of how vorticist painter Edward Wadsworth became one of the ten dock officers who supervised the painting of the actual ships. Following the war, Wadsworth created the well-known painting that is featured on the cover, in addition to a series of black and white woodcut prints.

There are also several accounts of UK-based commissions to apply dazzle-paint camouflage schemes to a small number of ships today, as one way of observing the centenary of the war. They've been good tourist attractions for sure, even if the new designs haven't much resemblance to genuine WWI dazzle-painting.

It is heartening to see the attention that this publication affords to two important contributions to the development of dazzle-painting (although they didn't call it that), both of whom came up with comparable methods two or more years in advance of its officially sanctioned proposal by Norman Wilkinson in 1917. They were Scottish zoologist John Graham Kerr and a Liverpool art dealer named Archibald E. Phillips. The latter, who submitted a number of ship camouflage proposals to the War Office in May 1915, actually described his designs as having a "dazzle effect" and "dazzling the eyes of the gunners of enemy submarines."

For a detailed and persuasive account of Kerr's dazzle-like proposals, see Hugh Murphy and Martin Bellamy's "The Dazzling Zoologist: John Graham Kerr and the Early Development of Ship Camouflage," which is available online here.

Of the many illustrations in the issue, among the most inviting is an oblique installation view of a camouflage exhibition at Riverside Museum, titled Nowhere to Hide: Camouflage at Sea (as shown below).


"Edward Wadsworth" in The Glasgow Herald (February 2, 1951)—

[Wadsworth's influences] can be traced, of course, here and there, Cubism and Vorticists, the portrait drawings of Wyndham Lewis, later on the flat, polished, cheerfully dreary patterns of Léger; much more important, probably, the engineer's training, the work on dazzle camouflage during the First World War, and everything else, from a first acquaintance with the high, cold light of the Aberdeen coast to the decorating of the Queen Mary, that had to do with ships and the sea.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Roster of World War I British Ship Camouflage Artists

Dazzle-painted ship models being tested (c1919)
Above This historic photograph was presumably taken in London at the Royal Academy of Arts at Burlington House, where a British Dazzle Section was set up by artist Norman Wilkinson in June 1917. It was published at the end of the war, such as, for example, in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (February 1, 1919 issue).

There is also a print of it in the online collection in the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA 165-WW-70C-009) where it is listed as having been obtained on February 17, 1919, and as having been provided by the Western Newspaper Union.

According to various accounts, (among them Nicholas Rankin's A Genius for Deception) there were four teams involved in the design, testing and application of British dazzle camouflage schemes: At Burlington House, there were three modelers who constructed foot-long models of merchant ships; there were five RNVR lieutenants who made colored diagrams of potentially effective schemes; and there were eleven women art students who painted those schemes on the models.

The photograph above records the subsequent testing stage, in which one of the lieutenants (on the right) is peering through an instrument that simulates a German U-boat gunner's view through a periscope. On the left is one of the women assistants, who is standing beside a small turntable, on which a ship model can be rotated in any direction to any degree. (Nearer, in the center foreground and on the table on the right, are apparently larger striped ship models; while in the center background, behind the woman, are other finished models on shelves.) If estimates of the ship model's course, as assessed by experts, were substantially inaccurate, its design might then be applied to an actual ship in the harbor. In the harbors, there were ten RNVR dock officers (usually artists) who supervised the painting of the dazzle designs onto actual full-scale ships.

Recently, through the dutiful detective work of British historian James Taylor (whose new book DAZZLE: Disguise and Disruption in War and Art, will be released this fall), there may now be a complete list of those artists who fulfilled the roles described above. Here is the list he's provided (not in particular order, my links added)—

Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971). Cecil George Charles King (1881-1942). Leonard Campbell Taylor (1874-1969). Jan Gordon [Godfrey Jervis Gordon] (1882-1944). Charles William Wyllie (1853-1923). (Reginald) Guy Kortright (1876-1948). Bryan Hook (1856-1925). Charles Johnson Payne [called Snaffles] (1884-1967). Julius Olsson (1864-1942). Frank Henry Algernon Mason (1875-1965). Montague Dawson (1890-1973). Christopher Clark (1875-1942). Steven Spurrier (1878-1961). Edward Alexander Wadsworth (1889-1949). Hubert Alington Yockney (1888-1969). (Robert) Oswald Moser (1874-1953). Nigel Bruce Severn (1871-1946). Montague Smyth (1863-1965).

Were there others?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Camouflaged Hollywood Special Effects WWI

Above In accounts of World War I US Army camouflage, most credit is given to artists, usually painters and sculptors. But in fact, recruits who served as camoufleurs came from a wide range of career backgrounds, with calls for volunteers among architects, house painters, sign painters, carpenters and theatrical set designers. As these photos confirm, even Hollywood film set designers contributed to the development of duplicitous battlefield special effects. (This is not a genuine functioning cannon—it's a dummy theatre prop. The firing of the gun is simulated, and the buildings are scenery settings.) National Archives and Records Administration (c1918).


C.C. Lyon, PERSHING NEEDS ARTISTS TO MAKE SOLDIERS LOOK LIKE TREES AND ROCKS in Waterloo Times-Tribune (Waterloo IA), June 13, 1918, p, 6—

The "Camouflage" section of our army has been developed until it is now a most important adjunct.

We need men who can create costumes that will make soldiers look like straw stacks; snipers look like old tree trunks; and railroad trains like babbling books.

…The other day I met a famous American sculptor dressed in the uniform of an American private.

"I've joined the camouflage section," he laughed. "…it was about time I turned my talents to the good of my country.

I put in my days making odd things that will fool the Germans. The easiest things to make with clay and plaster are huge shells that, when properly painted and treated with substances resembling moss, will look like old rocks embedded in the hillsides. Our snipers can get inside and spot German heads when they show over the tops of their trenches."…

"The other day," he said, "another sculptor in the camouflage section completed a figure of a soldier and dressed it in an American uniform. At the front, the figure was used to draw the enemy's fire and thereby locate the positions of his snipers.

"He laid the figure in a dark corner of our workshop, and it looked like one of our camouflagers had sneaked off to take a little nap.

"Pretty soon the captain came along and discovered this soldier snoozing in the corner. He shook him none too gently. 'Get out of here and get to work; what do you think this is, a hotel?' he bellowed.

"When the sleeper refused to move, the captain took him my the collar and assisted him to his feet—and looked him squarely in the eye.

"Then he laid him gently down again and looked around to see if anybody had witnessed the performance."…

[These camoufleurs] are adept in figuring out costumes that will fool the Germans.

With them, hay, straw, grass, moss and mud are much used materials. They're able to make a covering for a sniper that will make him look like a pile of muddy rocks along the roadside. And it's a good idea for all concerned—allied as well as the Germans—to carefully examine hay and straw stacks, wheat shocks and even wood piles, because in the world of camouflage nothing is what it seems to be.

I saw an ordinary looking woodpile one day last winter, and lamented the fact that so much valuable fuel should be going to waste with the thermometer below zero. On closer inspection it proved to be a bullet-proof barricade behind which allied machine gunners could command a very important road.


There is more information on the contribution to wartime camouflage of theatrical designers in an earlier post.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Dazzle Ship Camouflage Continued in WWII

USS Vestal (1944)
Above Nearly everywhere on the internet, whether in online articles or blog discussions, it is claimed over and over again (as if that would make it true) that the use of dazzle designs for ship camouflage was discontinued after World War I. But that's not the case at all. While the styles of camouflage evolved (as happened in WWI as well)—and while the term for such patterns was changed from "dazzle" (in part because that term was British) to "disruptive" or "pattern" camouflage"—the use of high difference camouflage schemes continued on both sides of the conflict until the end of WWII. In the US, this was no doubt partly due to the fact that the same American Impressionist artist (Everett Longley Warner) oversaw the production of dazzle designs in both World Wars. 

The photograph above, for example, is not from WWI. It's a camouflaged American ship (the USS Vestal), photographed on September 8, 1944, near the end of WWII. True, this particular design is not typical of US ship camouflage at the time—not because it's disruptively patterned but rather because it's so "squiggly" and non-geometric. In fact, in the overwhelming density of its disruption, it seems more reminiscent of certain German camouflage for minesweepers from the same time period.

The USS Vestal was used in both World Wars (in fact it was one of the ships that was damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor). As a result, we have the opportunity to compare this ship's WWII camouflage (above) with its earlier camouflage scheme from WWI (below).

USS Vestal (1918)

Postscript As of 10Aug2016, we have received this information from Aryeh Wetherhorn—

The WWII pattern was called Measure LC. It was a random pattern of Black, Brown, and 3 shades of Green. It was used primarily for amphibious ships, but also for support ships that might be viewed against a jungle island background.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Hypothetical Dazzle Camouflage Schemes | Part 16

Above Hypothetical dazzle ship camouflage schemes (2016) by Roy R. Behrens, "in the styles" of four famous artists. Can you name them? Answers are at the bottom of this blogpost. more>>>


Gene Fowler, "Camouflage" in Our Paper (Massachusetts Reformatory, Concord Junction MA). November 10, 1917, p. 533, as reprinted from the Denver Labor Bulletin

The shades of night were falling fast
As through a busy street there passed
A dame dressed up like seventeen,
But fifty years, at least, she'd seen—

An old sport, with a foxy vest,
Wears one huge diamond on his chest.
His friends admire him for his taste.
They do not know it is of paste—

The actress with the Titian hair
Makes hearts beat hard and fond eyes stare.
Ah! Those rare tints of auburn locks
Rise deftly from some drug store box;

The bunk man seeketh him a hick
And slippeth him a neat gold brick.
The sucker thinks he's bought in snug.
Ho, Warden, ho! another bug—

The girl you woo is small and sweet,
You lay your love there at her feet
A year you're married. Ring, bells, ring,
Ah! tell me. Death, where is thy sting?

And so, in every vale of life.
(Look out, you're eating with your knife.)
You find the things that are, just ain't!
(Get out another coat of paint)—

Answers (top to bottom) Ford Madox Brown, Patrick Henry Bruce, George Washington Lambert, and Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten.

Dazzle: Disguise and Disruption in War and Art

Above The wonderfully appropriate cover of a forthcoming book by British historian James Taylor (former curator of paintings at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich UK), featuring one of the woodcuts of dazzle-painted ships by Vorticist Edward Wadsworth. The book, titled Dazzle: Disguise and Disruption in War and Art, won't be available until mid-September 2016, but it can be pre-ordered now on Amazon, on both US and UK sites. Unprecedented in its detail, it is a significant new account of the development of dazzle ship camouflage in World World War I. The following is the publisher's note on its contents—

While it is a constant throughout history that conflict has inspired and engendered great art, it is a much rarer event for art to impact directly upon the vicissitudes of war. Yet, in the course of the First World War, a collision of naval strategy and the nascent modern art movement, led to some two thousand British ships going to sea as the largest painted modernist “canvases” in the world covered in abstract, clashing, decorative, and geometric designs in a myriad of colors. Dazzle camouflage had arrived.

Heavily inspired by the Cubism and British Vorticism art movements, dazzle was conceived and developed by celebrated artist and then naval commander Norman Wilkinson. Dazzle camouflage rejects concealment in favor of disruption. It seeks to break up a ship’s silhouette with brightly contrasting geometric designs to make a vessel’s speed and direction incredibly difficult to discern. False painted bow-waves and sterns were used to confuse and throw off the deadly U-boat captains. The high contrast shapes and colors further made it very difficult to match up a ship in the two halves of an optical naval rangefinder. This new book traces the development of the dazzle aesthetic from theory into practice and beyond.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Camouflage Artist | Jean-Louis Forain

Camouflage artist Jean-Louis Forain (left), c1914-15
Above At the beginning of World War I, Jean-Louis Forain was a well-known and immensely popular French artist, who in his youth had been close friends with Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Edgar Dégas, and Édouard Monet. Known chiefly as a caricaturist, he had been strongly influenced by Honoré Daumier.

When the war began, Forain was already in his sixties. Nevertheless, he volunteered for the French Army’s camouflage section. In the photograph shown here, he is on the left, applying disruptive camouflage shapes to a field cannon, c1914-15.

A comparable image is reproduced in Cécile Coutin, Tromper ‘ennemi (p. 27), where it is credited to the Musée de l’Armée, Paris. As a side dish, below is a passage we recently found in which a prominent British nurse recalls her wartime meeting with Forain.


Kathleen Burke, The White Road to Verdun. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916—

We lunched with General [Philippe] Pétain and his État Major. A charming and most interesting addition to the party was M. [Jean-Louis] Forain, the famous French caricaturist, and now one of the Chief Instructors of the French Army in the art of camouflage—the art of making a thing look like anything in the world except what it is! He has established a series of schools all along the French Front, where the Poilus [French infantry] learn to bedeck their guns and thoroughly disguise them under delicate shades of green and yellow, with odd pink spots, in order to relieve the monotony. Certainly the appearance of the guns of the present time would rejoice the heart and soul of the "Futurists." It was most interesting to hear him describe the work in detail and the rapidity with which his pupils learned the new art. For one real battery there are probably three or four false ones, beautiful wooden guns, etc., etc., and he told us of the Poilus' new version of the song Rien n'est plus beau que notre Patrie ("Nothing is more beautiful than our country"). They now sing Rien n'est plus faux que notre batterie ("Nothing is more false than our battery").

Kathleen Burke

More Horse Carcasses & Phony Observation Trees

Steel-Lined Dead Tree Observation Post
Above During the trench warfare of World War I, both sides of the conflict "test drove" the idea of clandestinely replacing familiar large dead tree trunks with steel-lined replicas of the same trees. Equipped inside with a ladder and a telephone, these were used as observation posts. Given the skill and effort required to construct one of these, not to mention the challenge of putting it in place (at night, in total darkness), there can only have been a few of these.

As noted in an earlier post, British painter Solomon J. Solomon (initially in charge of the Camouflage Section of the Royal Engineers) is thought to have been responsible for erecting the first British observation tree in March 1916, a task that he later depicted in a well-known painting.

In this wartime photograph, we see a British soldier apparently inspecting a faux tree made by German camoufleurs. There are a few eyewitness accounts of how these were constructed, and at least one British observation tree has survived and is in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London.


E. Alexander Powell, Italy at War and the Allies in the West. [The War on All Fronts series. Vol IV] New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919.

At a certain very important point on the French front there long stood, in an exposed and commanding position, a large and solitary tree, or rather the trunk of a tree, for it had been shorn of its branches by shell fire. A landmark in that flat and devastated region, every detail of this gaunt sentinel had long since become familiar to the keen eyed observers in the German trenches, a few hundred yards away. Were a man to climb to its top—and live—he would be able to command a comprehensive view of the surrounding terrain. The German sharpshooters saw to it, however, that no one climbed it. But one day the resourceful French took the measurements of that tree and photographed it. These measurements and photographs were sent to Paris. A few weeks later there arrived at the French front by railway an imitation tree, made of steel, which was an exact duplicate in every respect, even to the splintered branches and the bark, of the original. Under cover of darkness the real tree was cut down and the fake tree erected in its place, so that, when daylight came, there was no change in the landscape to arouse the Germans' suspicions. The lone tree-trunk to which they had grown so accustomed still reared itself skyward. But the "tree" at which the Germans were now looking was of hollow steel, and concealed in its interior in a sort of conning tower, forty feet above the ground, a French observing officer, field glasses at his eyes and a telephone at his lips, was peering through a cleverly concealed peep-hole, spotting the bursts of the French shells and regulating the fire of the French batteries.


Of course there were other kinds of battlefield observation posts as well, such as the supposed use of imitation horse carcasses as hiding places, as was featured earlier. My own suspicion is that few of these colorful camouflage ploys were actually used on the battlefield. But they proved immensely valuable as amusing illustrations for exaggerated news reports, which boosted recruiting and Liberty Loans. Below for example are photographs of the two sides of a roughed-out dead horse carcass trick, mocked-up in clay by camoufleurs at Camp Taylor KY (c1918).

Phony Horse Carcass Used as Observation Post

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Camouflaged Ships as Deep-Sea Barbershops

USS Siboney (c1918) in dazzle camouflage
Arthur Capper, Nature, Art and Camouflage in The Topeka Capital (Topeka KS). October 21, 1917, p. 4B—

The new art of camouflage is not limited to land, by any means. One of our boys transported to Europe has described a fine example of this art, in the case of the American destroyers, hunters of U-boats, who came out to meet the transport fleet as it neared the French coast.

The smudge of the destroyers could be seen twenty minutes before they themselves were visible, and when their hulls finally appeared they bore the appearance of a two-stack freighter heavily loaded and low in the water. As a matter of fact the destroyer has four funnels instead of two, but the two not seen at a distance are cleverly camouflaged to give the appearance of a freighter instead of a war vessel. As the boats came nearer the boys thought they were French, owing to their gay and bizarre coloring, or decoration. Their sides were painted in zigzag lines of white and blue, while the rigging and "concealed" smoke stacks were trickily and cockily camouflaged in wavy lines or "snaky ribbons," of green, white and blue. The general effect of the American destroyers on the sea, when transacting business, as soon as they can be closely observed, is suggested by the nickname the American soldiers immediately gave them of "deep-sea barbershops." The U-boat is the "canned Hun."

…The notion that protective coloration of warships must necessarily be a dull sea-gray disappeared long ago… New principles are employed, as in the case of the spiral green, white and blue lines on the stacks of torpedo boats, the zigzag lines of blue and white on the hull, and the same scheme of wavy zigzag, or spiral painted lines and splashes of color in varicolored combinations on cannon behind the front.

Yet the truth is that the new camouflage follows the principles first adopted by the artists of the Barbizon school and soon carried to extremes by radical painters, the principles that later, about thirty-five years ago, developed into the new landscape method of impressionism. Camouflage and impressionism are twin sisters. Nature is in fact colored not on simple, dull principles, but its coloration is greatly mixed, weirdly so, and with no regard to conventional ideas of consistency or harmony. Once in a while, as in this exceptionally brilliant month in Kansas, the true principle of mixed coloration appears to the plain, common eye in viewing the stunning prairie landscape. But to the now initiated artist these colors are present, even when hidden.

Arthur Capper, campaign card for Kansas governor's race

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Inept Trompe l'Oeil Camouflage in WWI

Camp Sherman, Chillicothe OH, building camouflage (1919)

Distant view of same building (1919)
Surely, some of the least persuasive camouflage of World War I was illusionistic building camouflage, devised by Allied infantry camoufleurs. Sometimes it was designed by artists who were assumed to be experts because, as civilians, they had worked or studied as artists. Too often, apparently, they may not have been sufficiently skilled as painters, nor did they genuinely understand the conditions that contribute to effective camouflage. There is ample indication of that in wartime vintage photographs of the use of quaint pictorial scenes (inept trompe l'oeil realism) on the sides of buildings, which can't have fooled anyone. Show here (above and below) are various examples of that from government photographs from WWI.

As was featured in an earlier post, it was common to use perspective illusions in setting up phony pictorial scenes.


Henry Berry [American artist, writer and WWI camoufleur], Make the Kaiser Dance. NY: Doubleday, 1978, p. 206—

None of us, including the captain, knew a goddamn thing about camouflage, but it got us out of all the drilling and what have you.

309th Engineers, Camp Taylor KY (1918)

European building camouflage (c1918)

Ambulances painted on building, Camp Taylor KY (1918)
Camouflaged Naval Air Station in FL (c1919)

Friday, July 1, 2016

Protective Coloration for White Horses

Protective coloration
Above (apologies for posting this drawing again, but it is so good it deserves to be repeated) World War I-era cartoon by George Morrow, published in Punch magazine, April 7, 1915, p. 280. The caption reads: REMARKABLE CASE OF PROTECTIVE COLORING. Owing, it is believed, to the fears of a German invasion, a zebra at the zoo assumes a neutral aspect.•

• Protectively colored in "stars and stripes" from a British point of view, presumably because the US was still neutral in the war.


In earlier posts, we have talked about the practice during World War I (apparently not uncommon) of reducing the conspicuousness of white horses by painting them with darkened pigments. We've found yet another reference to that in the memoirs of the granddaughter of President U.S. Grant: Princess Cantacuzeine, Countess Spéransky, née Grant, Revolutionary Days: Recollections of Romanoffs and Bolsheviki 1914-1917. Small, Maynard and Company 1919, p. 23. In this passage, she recalls the resulting commotion when newly-painted horses (formerly white) were loaded onto railroad cars—

A most curious sight was the horses belonging to the regimental band. It was a tradition that though the other soldiers were all mounted on bay horses, the band should ride pure white steeds. With the news ideas of warfare, these animals became a danger to their unit, and they had been dyed for safety with olive-brown. This was their first appearance in their disguise; and their comrades of the four squadrons did not recognize them. There was a dreadful fuss, and such desire to avoid the poor, painted creatures that the latter felt insulted; and regarding themselves as victims of a ridiculous mistake, they lost no opportunity of protesting. Their humiliation turned them timid and fractious, and it took time and persuasion to get them into their cars. Everyone rushed to help; and officers as well as soldiers were amused at the result of this first essay at "camouflage," which came as a diversion to our strained feelings.