Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Modernism and Ship Camouflage

Above These three watercolor paintings (with no credit to the artist, and the signature at bottom right is unreadable) were published as the frontispiece in George A. Hoadley, Essentials of Physics. Revised edition. American Book Company, 1921. The caption is headed "A Ship Illustrating the 'Dazzle' System of Camouflage," followed by: The pictures show the same ship, headed in the same direction, but a three different distances. When seen as a great distance, especially through the periscope of a submarine, the ship appears to be headed in a direction quite different from its actual course, because of the false perspective design painted on it. In the remainder of the book, there's only one brief mention of camouflage (p. 481).

During World War I, having recently been introduced, by way of the Armory Show, to Cubism, Futurism and other forms of Modernism , the public was amazed (delighted, shocked, offended) by the use of blatantly colorful shapes for ship camouflage. Publications from that time are filled with outspoken eyewitness reports of what it was like to see a fleet of dazzle-camouflaged ships. For example, this is from American writer Arthur Stanley Riggs' With Three Armies On and Behind the Western Front. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1918, pp. 17-18—

The ship herself was not painted a uniform war gray but with a bluish-gray as a background, she was literally covered, hull, superstructure, funnels, spars, boats, everything with bilious green and red-lead squares, set diamondwise—camouflage at sea [this is probably in reference to the Cunard ocean liner, the RMS Mauretania]. When coming aboard a young airplane engine expert, with the rank of a Lieutenant-Commander of the Royal Naval Reserve, shivered at this hideous pleasantry, and all the way across missed meals and kept away from the bluest part of the smoking room.

Here's another disgruntled report from an American "war essayist," S.J. Duncan-Clark from "The Impressions of a Landlubber" in The Recruit: A Pictorial Naval Magazine. Vol. 5. Great Lakes Athletic Association, 1919—

I traveled across the Atlantic on the Adriatic, one of a fleet of twelve transports carrying 30,000 American soldiers. They were all British ships, but they had an American convoy for the greater part of the voyage. We steamed out of New York harbor with four destroyers acting as our guard, two on either side, and a cruiser leading the way.

Every merchant ship was camouflaged. Imagine a lunatic cubist painter turned loose with three brushes and a pot each of black, white and blue paint, and the results would be much like those that were visible to us on the hulls of our sister ships.

And a third report from the same time period, in British clergyman William James Dawson's The Father of a Soldier. John Lane Company, 1918, p. 11—

I have just returned from the Docks, and have seen my son off for his third trip to the trenches.

Beside the landing stage lay a ship strangely camouflaged, as if a company of cubist artists had been at work upon her. She looked like an old lady of sober habits, who had been caught in the madness of carnival, and dressed as a zany. She was adorned—or disfigured—by stripes of color that ran in all directions, splashings of green, splotches of gray, curves of dull red, all mixed in uttermost confusion and with no discernible design. I was told that this extraordinary appearance was designed to give the ship invisibility: thus clothed she would flee like a ghost over the gray perilous waters, a phantom thing of blurred outlines, as if evoked from the waters themselves.