Friday, December 29, 2017

Ship Camouflage Exhibit at French Maritime Museum

Poster for French exhibition (2017)
Above Poster for a current exhibition titled RAZZLE DAZZLE: L'art contre-attaque! at the National Maritime Museum in Brest, France. The exhibit, which pertains to World War I and to ship camouflage in particular, opened on October 20, 2017 and continues through December 31, 2018. Poster and installation designed by Collectif XYZ.

Additional items from the exhibition, including a view of the setting during a session with children, are reproduced below. For detailed information in English, visit this page at the museum website. Courtesy of Jean-Yves Besselièvre, museum administrator.


TEXANS AT PORTS ON GULF BAFFLED ENEMY SUBS BY CAMOUFLAGE. At Port Arthur, Beaumont, Houston and Orange They Made Ships Look Like Something Else. San Antonio Evening News, January 31, 1919, pp. 1 and 3—

Bound by oath to reveal nothiing about their activities, prohibited from so much as a reference to their vocation or the nature of the work they were doing from day to day, a silent army of Texas workmen during the war were engaged in doing a service to Uncle Sam that just now is coming to light with the lifting of the censorship ban. This work was the camouflaging of ships, upon which the very fortune of the war hinged.

WWI dazzle camouflage design by French artists (c1918)

"Some of the best work of camouflaging ships was done in Texas. I have also found that as a whole the men who worked in the Texas shipyards were more patriotic than some of those in the Eastern shipyards. The Texans proved themselves 100 per cent Americans." With that statement Follette Isaacson, chief camoufleur of the Gulf District, summed up the work of camouflaging ships in Texas. Mr. Isaacson was in San Antonio Thursday in conference with the organizers of the Armenian relief campaign.

The Gulf district includes the shipbuilding ports of Beaumont, Orange, Morgan City, Louisiana, and Houston, and the fuel base of Port Arthur, Texas. Mr. Isaccson's headquarters were at Beaumont the greater part of the time, although he superintended and directed the work of applying the camouflage designs to the emergency fleet ships and the oil tankers in all cities of the district.

Despite the fact that Mr. Isaacson begins his explanation of camouflage with the bromide statement that "camouflaging ships is a scientific business which was developed by American brain after America's 'armed neutrality' period of the war," his recital of this phase of winning the war is no less interesting than the erstwhile "Once upon a time" fairy stories.

According to Mr. Isaason, the United States was divided into eleven shipbuilding or seaport districts, each one of which was under the direction of a chief camoufleur.

WWI camouflaged ship model

Designers, Architects, Mural Painters Make Camoufleurs

Working under the direction of the chief camoufleur was an assistant camoufleur and a corps of camoufleurs. The camouflage designs were originated by the Navy Department, Bureau of Construction and Repair, and in turn were applied to the ships by the camoufleurs who worked under the Emergency Fleet Corporation. The camoufleurs usually were men who had been commercial designers, architects and mural painters, while the executive work was handled by former business men.

In the Gulf district the emergency fleet ships were camouflaged at Beaumont, Orange and Houston, and Morgan City, Louisiana, there being a shipyard at each place. At Port Arthur, Texas, which is one of the fuel bases for the United States Navy and also one of the chief exporting ports of the country, all tankers were camouflaged.

Camouflage as an art and a science has passed through an evolution during the course of the recent great war, according to Mr. Isaacson. Beginning with the painting of ships in a monotone color that harmonized with the atmospheric color of the sea landscape, the next step in camouflage was the combination of colors.

This combination of colors, Mr. Isaacson explained further, was made in an effort to adapt the ship to the changing atmospheric conditions of different localities and did not represent waves as is popularly supposed. For this reason a combination of colors would be worked out to suit the variant conditions of different localities, as the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. This system was worked out by W[illiam] A[ndrew] Mackay, a mural painter of New York City.

The third step was the Wilkinson Dazzle system of camouflage which was worked out by an officer of the English navy who demonstrated the feasibility of this system to the United States Government. This system was used in the United States in the latter part of 1917.

Distortion Camouflage Is Most Successful of All

"But," continued Mr. Isaacson, "it remained to American brain to work out the most perfect system of all, known as the distortion system. While the Wilkinson Dazzle camouflage proved fairly successful, the distortion camouflage was the most successful of all."

Distortion camouflage, as its name implies, Mr. Isaacson explained, distorts the accepted outline of the ship. This outline often was so distorted that the enemy could not tell in which direction the ship was going or whether they were looking at it broadside or by the stern. Since the submarie usually operated at a distance of a thousand yards, it was necessary for them to come closer to attack, which brought on disastrous results to them after the American boats were armed and protected. Again, some forms of distortion camouflage also served to convey the impression that the ship was two or three points off of its actual course.

Installation view of French exhibit (2017)

The particular form that created this impression was the perspective distortion, which was the arrangement of color masses in conformance with the perspective law of the vanishing point, which is that objects tend to grow smaller or vanish with distance. By arranging the color masses so that they followed a certain direction, the distance to the ship and its course was misrepresented.

Couldn't Tell If It Was Coming or Going

Another form of distortion camouflage that was highly successsful was the equalization of masses. The relative structural spaces of the ship, the comparative width of its bow and the length of its broadside were broken up or distorted by camouflage designs. In addition to this, the designs usually were applied in such a manner that the ship would appear to be going in an opposite direction from what it actually was. The stack, being one of the most important factors in creating this illusion, was also camouflaged in keeping with the other part of the design. In nearly all cases the equalization of masses, destroying the accepted outline as it did, makes it impossible to tell whether a ship is approaching broadside or by the bow.

A third phase of distortion is camouflage through color value, which is the arrangement of graduated colors in a camouflage design according to their value, as black, heavy gray and gray-white. The colors most frequently used in all camouflage were blue, black, gray-white and blue-gray.

"The whole thing is a question of science," Mr. Isaacson concluded, "science built on the biological principle of protective coloring. Camouflage in one form or another has always been in existence. The chameleon, the lizard that takes on the color of its surroundings when it is frightened, is a good example of protective coloring. In camouflaging ships we merely added scientific principles to the biological principle of protective coloring."