The Art of Not Being Seen

According to the writer Gertrude Stein, when Pablo Picasso first laid eyes on a camouflaged cannon in Paris during the First World War he exclaimed “C’est nous qui avons fait ça!” – “It is we who created that!”

Picasso’s reaction emphasised the parallels that his Cubist art had with this new, disruptive form of military patterning. It’s difficult to say which way the influence truly ran, but the similarity between these two distinct artforms rests on a similar intention to disrupt an exterior form in order to change a recognised identity.

This intriguing parallel between the avant-garde art world and   military design history is thoroughly investigated in Camouflage, a new book by Tim Newark, the editor of Military Illustrated. The book sets out to chart both the development of the medium, as it was originally intended, and also to show how the patterning technique rendered by official “camoufleurs” has shifted beyond its militaristic use to become a staple in contemporary popular culture.

Newark includes a range of collected material: a fascinating colour chart of the tonality of terrain on the Western Front, for example, which was used as a guide to make camouflaged fabric and screens. In the sea, British WWI warships also had their own highly decorative “dazzle” paint camouflage which was also strongly influenced by modern artists, particularly the Fauves. On the page, the ships’ designs are a striking collection of stripes, chevrons and harlequin patterns but, when viewed through a periscope, the outline of any vessel was markedly difficult to determine.

While music and fashion have often borrowed from camouflage (as shown in the latter part of Newark’s book) the most fascinating stuff here concerns its development as a way of disguising people in warfare and in its strange, simultaneous development alongside Europe’s Modernist movements. An exhibition on camouflage is at the Imperial War Museum until November.

Camouflage is published by Thames & Hudson, £24.95


 

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