Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ship Camouflage, Indians and Sunset Magazine

Cover by Harold Von Schmidt (1918)
Sunset magazine was founded in 1898. Eight years later its offices were destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake. In its literary and artistic heydey, which was more or less concurrent with World War I, it was one of the country's finest periodicals. It offered top quality writing, both fiction and nonfiction, with covers and interior images by some of the best illustrators. 

Some of its most memorable covers were created by Maynard Dixon, who was associated with the well-known cluster of artists at Taos NM. As we've explained in an earlier post, Dixon was a member of the American Camouflage Western Division in California, and two of his fellow artists and friends—William Penhallow Henderson and Bro Julius Olson Nordfeldt—were ship camoufleurs in San Francisco during the war. 

Yesterday, we made yet another discovery while browsing around in old issues of Sunset: The Pacific Monthly. On the cover of the December 1918 issue, quietly hidden for all these years, is a magnificent illustration of a dazzle-painted ship (shown above) by Harold Von Schmidt. A native of California, Von Schmidt was also connected to Taos, and often contributed artwork to Sunset magazine. What a great find. Please share with others.

Five months earlier, in its July issue, the same magazine had published an unsigned column about Native Americans, the Southwest, and wartime camouflage. Here's the article—

Modern camouflage, the out-door art first practiced by the French and now so effectively developed in the war zone, is, contrary to general belief, an ancient American institution. This fact was proved recently by the driver of a camouflaged Kissel Kar while on a tour through the Indian reservations of the West. They discovered that apart from its modern application, there is little new about the war except its name.

Naturally the weirdly striped automobile created a great deal of interest among the red men, who listened attentively to the explanations of the purpose of the futuristic application of paint. It was noticed, however, that certain of the older Indians seemed to look upon the bizarre creation with unusual passiveness. Then, when some of them finally spoke, it became clear that this startling apparition on wheels embodied an idea that had become outworn with the advance of civilization among the Indian tribes.

As these statements became more frequent, the tourists began to search for data that would prove the American Indian to be the original camoufleur. They learned, among other things, that paint on an Indian’s face and body, as well as on his teepee and other personal possessions, was originally used to secure protective coloring, after the species of camouflage instinctively employed by so many members of the animal kingdom.

One wizened squaw, who had lived through a long period of conflict between her people and the early white men, furnished, through an interpreter, an interesting account of how the Indian children of bygone generations were taught to become skillful in disguises. They learned how to use leaves and flowers and other natural products of the forest and field in their hair and clothing so that they could creep through the woods unseen. They learned to blend their bodies with almost any surroundings in which they found themselves, for protection as well as for the successful stalking of game or enemies.

It was a custom, when a young Indian aspired to the estate of warrior, to test him in his ability to successfully camouflage himself. The tourists were told that one demonstration required was that the ambitious youth approach as closely as possible the assembled warriors without being seen. The skill with which the young buck masked himself, blending his body into the foliage of the woods, probably helped determine his standing as a scout or fighter.

Camouflage—by whatever name it originally went—is no longer practiced by the American Indian. Today it is the pale face who employs this ancient means of protection on an enormous scale. And today, through the selective draft, the young American Indian in khaki is brought into contact, on the fields of France, with the modern development of the primitive art of his fathers.