Thursday, October 21, 2010

Vonnegut and Camouflage

From the opening page of Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard: The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988). New York: Dell, 1987—

…I was deprived of my left eye while commanding a platoon of Army Engineers, curiously enough artists of one sort or another in civilian life, in Luxembourg near the end of World War Two. We were specialists in camouflage, but at that time were fighting for our lives as ordinary infantry. The unit was composed of artists, since it was the theory of someone in the Army that we would be especially good at camouflage.

William Andrew Mackay and Optical Camouflage

Early in World War I, American muralist William Andrew Mackay used a spinning, colored Maxwell disk (Invented by James Clark Maxwell) to produce an optical mixture of gray that he argued would be more effective than battleship gray as "low visibility" ship camouflage paint. His efforts are reported as follows in a chapter on "Marine Camouflage" in Benedict Crowell, How America Went to War: The Road to France. Vol 3. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921, pp. 496-498—

In the spring of 1917 Mr. William Andrew Mackay, a New York artist, brought to Washington a little machine for spinning various colored discs. At an interested meeting of the Navy Consulting Board he placed on this machine a disc, the sectors of which were colored successively red, violet, and green in fixed proportions. He spun the disc, and it thereupon blurred into a gray as nearly identical with that of a sea horizon as human vision could register. Then, placing on the machine a disc of alternately green and violet sectors, properly proportioned, he spun it, and the result was the blue of sea water. Then he expounded his theory.

He opposed paint designs which brought in white or gray, on the ground that these colors do not actually appear in nature in the traveled latitudes of the Atlantic; they appear only in effect. He ruled out battleship gray on the ground that it gives off a reflected color, and is not an original source of color waves. The horizon background behind it, on the other hand, is kinetic in its effect upon the optic nerve; and therefore the gray ship, even if its paint reproduce the horizon color exactly, will always appear distinct against the horizon. He analyzed the horizon light itself into its primary colors and proposed to mingle those colors in a painted pattern the component colors of which would merge in the distance and become themselves a kinetic source of radiation of the desired shade. He declared that a ship so painted—painted with pigment light, as it were—would tend to merge completely into the marine background.

The Mackay system was applied to many ships. It was the forerunner of numerous similar systems devised by artists who were studying the spectrum composition of light and applying their theories in various stripe and stipple patterns. One of these men was Mr. Louis Herzog, an artist of New York, whose system combined quarter shading and primary colors. Dr. Maximilian Toch, an artist and paint manufacturer of New York, devised another invisibility system based on studies of the spectrum.

As the Mackay system developed, it came to consist mainly of block patterns of primary colors. The color blocks possessed sharp outlines and were arranged in cubist fashion on what the artist called the rupture principle. He usually divided a vessel into large masses of contrasting color tones, in order to cause one or another of the large portions of the vessel to be invisible and to leave other parts visible, but showing a contour quite unlike that of a ship.

Mr. Mackay worked at the Norfolk Navy Yard, where painters under his direction experimentally camouflaged the yacht Legonia II, several fishing steamers, and a motor boat. One of the fishing boats, the M.M. Davis, was sent to sea on September 4, 1917, for observation. The reports made by practical mariners were, as usual, conflicting. One navy officer at Norfolk stated that, day in and day out, the Davis was more visible to him than ships painted the standard gray. On the other hand, the commander of the battleship Ohio observed the Davis and reported that her painting scheme was far superior to the gray of the warships.

About this time Mackay camouflage demonstrated its effectiveness in an unexpected way. One of the ships which the Mackay organization painted was the American liner Philadelphia. In October, 1917, while the Philadelphia was about 400 miles off the American coast proceeding to Europe, she sighted a mysterious freighter and, suspecting a submarine trap, ran up code flags demanding the vessel's identity. The cargo ship did not reply, and the Philadelphia fired a shot across her bows. At once the freighter hoisted the Swedish flag, and her master apologized, saying that he had failed to observe the liner in her camouflage coat. On this same voyage an American destroyer lost the Philadelphia on a bright moonlight night and could not find her until dawn. In November one of our troop transports, the President Grant, observed a cargo ship at sea camouflaged by the Mackay system. The commander of the Grant reported afterwards that his lookout did not see the cargo ship at all until she was only a mile away, and then she looked like a moving bit of horizon in which the masts furnished the clue. The consensus of opinion was that Mackay ships merged with the background at relatively short distances. The Navy therefore ordered a number of government vessels painted accordingly.

Camouflaged Brands and Old Tattoos

In the American West, it was common among livestock thieves to change the brands on stolen cattle by embedding (or camouflaging) the old brand within a new, more complex mark. The brand 7U, for example, was changed into a three-leaf clover, simply by adding a couple of lines. The brand Y6 was also embedded in a clover shape. Today, given the difficulty of removing tattoos, it is common among tattoo artists to use a comparable method: Instead of removing the old tattoo, they simply create a new design, in which the first one is hidden. More…

Jackson Pollock's Camouflage

In his recent book, called Tom and Jack, about the relationship between American artists Thomas Hart Benton (who was assigned to naval camouflage in WWI) and Jackson Pollock (who had been Benton's student), art historian Henry Adams argues that Pollock camouflaged the printed letters of his name in an early mural that he made for art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Adams writes—

He simply wrote the words "Jackson Pollock" very large across the canvas. By a nice coincidence, both first and last name had the same number of letters, so it wasn't hard to fit them in. So as not to make the effect too obvious, he introduced some dazzle patterns, like those used to camouflage a ship…[he] disguised them according to principles of camouflage that he had absorbed from Benton and other artists in Benton's circle… Scholars have generally traced Pollock's disruptive handling of form to cubism, but in fact his technique relies more on camouflage, a mode of painting that has a very different history [pp. 272-273].