Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ship Camoufleur Alon Bement—Again

Alon Bement, artist, teacher and camoufleur
We've featured American artist and teacher Alon Bement (shown above) at least three times in earlier blog posts. As happens with all of us, he would be all but forgotten today were it not for the fact of his influence on the painter Georgia O'Keeffe. During World War I, he also served as a civilian ship camoufleur, an experience he wrote about in newspapers and magazines. From 1920 to 1925, he was the director of the Maryland Institute College of Art (known then as the Maryland Institute School of Fine and Practical Arts). According to that school’s website, as its director—

[Alon Bement] brought a modernist sensibility to the school, introduced extension courses for high school students, and sent art education instructors to remote parts of Maryland. He made the public exhibitions hosted on campus an institutional priority including one of the first public shows of work by Henri Matisse in the United States.

In the 1930s, he became associated with the William E. Harmon Foundation and served as Director of the National Alliance of Art and Industry, during which he played a role in the production of two educational films, The Negro and Art (1933) and We Are All Artists (1936), both of which are now online.


SS Aurora in a dazzle camouflage pattern (1918)

Anon, “Navy Camoufleur at Manual” in Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn NY), May 6, 1919, p. 14—

Alon Bement, a camoufleur, first class, of the United States Shipping Board, and formerly a teacher at the Teachers’ College, Columbia University, was the speaker at the Senior Assembly of the Manual Training High School yesterday. At the beginning of the war Mr. Bement, who had considerable reputation as an artist, was called to act as a naval camoufleur. He was sent to Washington DC where he worked out designs for camouflaging ships, using small models for the purpose. If the designs were found to be feasible, they were reproduced on a linen sheet, taken to a shipyard and painted on a ship.

Mr. Bement went into detail to show how portions of the ship were marked out for certain colors by means of a hand mirror when the sun was shining. The camoufleur would stand on the edge of the dry dock and reflect the light along the lines which were intended to mark the borders of the various colors. In this way the apportioning off of the ship was readily accomplished.

Mr. Bement told of other schemes which were attempted to combat the submarine menace such as the construction of an outer hull to prematurely explode the torpedo. This means was hastily abandoned because such a hull would slow down the ship to such an extent that it would fall an easy prey to the U-boats.

He also explained why only the transports, freighters and destroyers were camouflaged and not the battleships. The big fighters were not daily subject to submarine attack so that it was unnecessary to give them their “make-up” and since it costs $3,000 to paint a battleship attention was confined to the first mentioned ships.

Mr. Bement told of how in a captured German U-boat, the British found fifty-eight pages of a leaflet in the commander’s cabin, telling what methods the Prussians were taking to combat the camouflage of Allied ships. With this find, the Allied camoufleurs were able to take new steps to offset the year’s calculations of the Germans.

One of the most interesting parts of this news article is the description of the use of a hand mirror to convey to the painter—whose task it was to mark out on the actual ship the camouflage color divisions with chalk—the location of "dots" from a distance (a process that's all but identical to the use of a pouncing wheel in transferring a pattern from one surface to another). About a year ago, we posted another news account of the same technique.