Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dazzle Ship Cover Design

Above This World War II-era British government publication features a powerful abstracted image of a dazzle-camouflaged ship. The designer is unidentified but the style is undoubtedly similar to earlier Vorticist works by Edward Wadsworth and Edward McKnight Kauffer. Notice the visual connections set up (through recurrent angles, aligned edges and correlated column widths) between the ship's camouflage pattern and its two strands of smoke.

Below is a published eyewitness account from World War I of what it was like to be part of a transatlantic trip aboard a dazzle-camouflaged steamer, accompanied by other camouflaged ships. It is extracted from an article titled "Over the Bounding Main in War Time" by William Charles O'Donnell, Jr., who was the Editor in France for Educational Foundations (Vol 30 No 3 December-January 1918-1919, pp. 133-137)—

I am thinking now of the incidents of the trans-Atlantic trip to Europe in the month of December 1917, and of the return voyage in the month of May 1918. The first queer sensation came as I tried to appreciate the subtle artistry displayed in the splashings of color and contortions of design on the sides of our steamer and on the other vessels similarly decorated. Camouflage, I believe, is a French theatrical expression. When an actor puts on his wig, elongates his nose, paints his cheeks, and accentuates his eyebrows for the purpose of blending his individuality with that of the character he is to represent before the footlights, he is the original camouflager, if the word may be so anglicized. So the great ships are made up for their part in the world's mighty drama of war. The effect is often weird, and startling. This nautical costuming seems often to reflect more of the spirit of comedy than of heavy tragedy. One does not have to wait until he is on the rolling waves to get the sensation for which ocean travel is famous. Concentration for a minute or two on the attempt to discover the elements of art in these grotesque displays, the geometric values in those wild configurations is enough to produce the brain whirl and the other disturbances supposed to be symptomatic of ocean sickness. The only cue is to close the eyes, to disengage the mind from the occupation, and to wait for the earth's returning to its orbit. Yet, we are assured that there is a discoverable scientific principle upon which the whole process is established. I have read somewhere of the French artist whose observation of the birds in their flight led him to a careful study of color combinations that produced the effect of invisibility. At short distance the black-backed bird with white breast, for instance, quickly becomes but a thin black line against the background of the sky. At a little distance the black line itself becomes invisible. A similar effect can be obtained with a ship at sea if a similar contiguity of variation in the colorings of its exterior decorations is effected. Especially as these ships are tumbling amid the waves at sea it is difficult to judge of their size or to know whether they are coming or going. By frequently veering its course the camouflaged ship is a puzzle to the submarine. Especially is this true of the small vessels, such as the torpedo boat destroyers, which have done such valiant work as convoys for transports and ocean steamers. I have watched these little heroes of the deep cutting into the foaming billows when it seemed as though they were entirely submerged and would never appear on the surface again. I have seen them when it was difficult to believe that they were more than half their real size. I remember watching one of our convoys one morning when it was utterly impossible to see the center of the boat at all. Just a small portion of the bow and about an equal portion of the stern was all that could be discerned. At times it seemed as though I must be looking at bits of wreckage being thrown from wave to wave. So fantastic as these decorations seem to be they are the application of an old science newly developed which has contributed largely to the success of the Allies.