Thursday, March 29, 2012

Camouflage Artist | George W. Weisenburg

Papier mâché dead horse and wagon (c1918). Author's collection.

In an earlier post called Horse Carcass Camouflage, we published two WWI-era photographs, along with a written eyewitness account, of a sniper's observation post in the spurious form of a dead horse—it was actually made of papier mâché. Reproduced here is another image from the same period, showing what appears to be another horse carcass and a wagon, but again the carcass is papier mâché. This is one of a dozen or more news photographs that were apparently sent out by the US government to promote amusing stories about the cleverness of camoufleurs. There is no way to know for sure when and how these techniques originated, or to what extent a trick like this was actually used on the battlefield.

Related to this, we recently found a news article from 1919, which claims that a Chicago artist named George W. Weisenburg (1886-1962) made the first papier mâché horse carcass (we have our doubts). The article, titled "Oak Park Man Created Camouflage, and His Art Horse Causes Health Department Complaint," appeared in Oak Leaves (Oak Park IL), Saturday, July 29, 1919, p. 30. Here's part of the text—
One day last year at Camp Grant [Rockford IL] the health inspector of the camp was making his rounds when, lying out in a field, he espied what was apparently a dead horse. Into the office of the commander of the camp stormed the health inspector.

"Your men," said he, "allow dead horses to lie about the place. This is a high crime."

The commander of the camp merely smiled. "That's a camouflage horse," he explained patiently. "It is made of papier mâché and inside its stomach a man can lie concealed." The horse was an example of the work of Sergeant Weisenburg.

Which is merely by way of prelude to the statement that Sergeant George Weisenburg of 1024 Wenonah [Oak Park IL] returned home on Friday of last week after eleven months' service in France as a camouflage artist for the 311th Engineers. Sergeant Weisenburg went to Camp Grant with a trench mortar battery. A few months later he was transferred to the camouflage corps. He was a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute and his ability as an artist was soon discovered. He was given charge of a company of artists who designed screens to camouflage the approach of troops or ammunition transports. The idea of the camouflage horse was his own creation and attracted wide attention.

At the Art Guild in Rockford [IL] he was requested to exhibit a number of canvases that had been hung at the American Art Exhibit. He was promoted to first class sergeant.

After eleven months at Camp Grant he was attached to the 311th Engineers and went overseas with the outfit. After eight months of service in France he was allowed to take a three months' course at the art center at Bellevue, being listed as a special casual. The school was designed by the American Government for those members of the AEF wishing to avail themselves of an advanced course in art. Sergeant Weisenburg returned to America last week, receiving his discharge at Camp Mills [Long Island NY]. He is a son of Dr. and Mrs. Berthold Weisenburg of 1024 Wenonah Avenue [Oak Park].

Beyond that, there isn't much online about Weisenburg, although there is one mention of his having been an art teacher (in later life) at Marshall High School in Oak Park.