Sunday, May 31, 2020

Art | an illusion of reality that tells the truth by fibbing

Leon Dabo (1909)
Above Portrait photograph of Leon Dabo by Emil O. Hoppé (1909). Public domain.


Rollin Lynde Hartt, CAMOUFLAGE in Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1918—

As their train nears Chicago, passengers note a low, murmurous hum. It is the Chicagoans saying “Camouflage.” Those of us who once confined our remarks to “Skiddoo! Twenty-three!” and more recently to “I should worry!” and “What do you know about that?” peg along at present on “Camouflage,” though a bit wearisome it grows. Declares a neighbor of mine, “The next time I hear ‘Camouflage’ I shall make my will, kiss my friends and relatives good-bye, and jump in the wastebasket!”…

[Camouflage] borrows its technique from a humble enough source. It is the Chamber of Horrors over again…Some steal their technique from the impressionists. Some repeat the antics of cubism. Others depend for their success upon certain very curious principles of optics. It takes an artist to invent them and an artist to explain them, and Mr. Leon Dabo* is never more entertaining than when holding forth on their theory and practice.

In order to understand the enormously important part impressionism plays in camouflage one must first define impressionism. Aesthetically, it is a simple matter, merely an attempt to reproduce, not nature itself, but the side of nature that appeals strongly to the artist. Technically, however, it involves profundities. Instead of counterfeiting reality, it creates an illusion of reality. It tells the truth by fibbing…

It was to cubism that the camouflageurs had recourse when they wanted to hide ships from view. Painting them gray was a poor device, they found. From habit, the eye would still recognize the silhouette of a ship even at a great distance. But it turns out that the eye had come to depend almost wholly on habit. Break up the familiar silhouette by dappling it with inharmonious colors in huge, shapeless masses, or—better yet—by covering it with immense cubist triangles and with cubist rectangles as immense—and the eye of the seasoned mariner would report no ship at all. The eye sees what it is accustomed to seeing and balks at learning new tricks.…

And why resent that low, murmurous hum of the Chicagoans saying “Camouflage”? Let the hum continue. It is just now a foolish hum, to be sure; it reflects a quaintly naive sense of novelty, as if camouflage were a new thing under the sun instead of being a modern recourse to trickery as old as “Quaker” cannon and the painted portholes on merchantmen, and, for that matter, the celebrated wooden horse at Troy. But it popularizes an idea. It gives it prominence. It backs up the army’s determination to put camouflage where it belongs. France has thousands of camouflageurs. So should we.…


* Note The following entry was featured in a column titled Fifty Years Ago 1918, in the August 25, 1968 issue of the Asbury Park Press (Asbury NJ)—

Aug. 27Leon Dabo, American painter who has been serving on General Pershing’s staff designing camouflage, was the principal speaker at a war rally in Ocean Grove Auditorium. He described enemy atrocities.