Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Camouflage Artist | Alan Sorrell

Alan Sorrell, Self-Portrait (1928)

We've been looking for information about British artist and writer Alan Sorrell (1904-1974), who served as a camoufleur and war artist during World War II. According to the Brighton University website—
During the Second World War Sorrell volunteered for the RAF but was transferred as a Camouflage Officer to the Air Ministry in 1941. He made drawings and paintings of camp life, a number of which were purchased by the War Artists Advisory Committee…

It was well known that scores of British artists had worked as camoufleurs during World War I, so that, as Brian Foss explains in Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945 (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 16-17), when World War II broke out—
…from early on, camouflage design had struck many artists as the most obvious route to congenial employment. By the beginning of September 1939 the Ministry of Labor had received letters from more than 2000 applicants for camouflage work, only a tiny fraction of whom even got onto a waiting list.…[By 1943] the number of artists who had earned a living in this line of work—though far below the number who had hoped to do sso—was impressive. Among the artists who had found camoufleur jobs for themselves were William Coldstream, Frederick Gore, Ashley Havinden, Blair Hughes-Stanton, Robert Medley, Colin Moss, Rodrigo Moynihan, Mervyn Peake, Roland Penrose, Robert Scanlan, Edward Seago, Richard Seddon, Alan Sorrell and Julian Trevelyan.

Earlier in his life, at age 24, Sorrell had been awarded the Prix de Rome for mural painting, which enabled him to study in Rome. Reproduced above (with permission) is an extraordinary self-portrait drawing, made with pencil, ink and opaque watercolor in 1928.

Alan Sorrell, Cavern in the Clouds (1944)

Mark Sorrell, one of the artist's three children, has written an online biographical essay about his father for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In an especially memorable passage, he writes—

Sorrell was a neo-Romantic. Recruits marching down to the station, in a wartime painting, proceed under a haloed moon. His reconstruction drawings are invested with dramatic cloud formations, swirling rainstorms, and smoke. In his more imaginative compositions, not tied down to immediate reality, a brooding oppressive atmosphere often prevails. They are images of a violently broken civilization—earthquake-shattered cities, jungle-invaded monuments, propped façades. In spite of this pessimistic attitude, he was a man with a gusto for life, naturally sociable and gregarious, with a witty manner which was hindered but never stifled by a stammer.

Of equal interest is an online video that was made by the artist's daughter, Julia Sorrell, in which she talks about her father in relation to a portrait that he made of her. In addition, there is other information at the website for the Alan Sorrell Project.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Alon Bement, O'Keeffe and Camouflage

In earlier postings, we've talked about American artist and teacher Alon Bement, shown here in an early photograph. A follower of Arthur Wesley Dow (author of Composition), Bement was an important influence on the young Georgia O'Keeffe (see photo lower on this page), who studied with him at Columbia University.

During World War I, he was a civilian camoufleur for the US Shipping Board, in the course of which he worked with William Andrew Mackay in New York. He wrote at least four magazine and news articles on ship camouflage, in which he also talked about how camouflage could be of use in everyday life. One of those, titled "Tricks by Which You Can Fool the Eye" (in American Magazine (May 1919), pp. 44-46 and 132ff), begins with the following statement—

When you think of camouflage, you imagine it is something that belongs only to war. You probably have no idea that you can literally "use it in your business," that you can employ it in your houses, your yards and gardens, even in the clothes you wear.

He goes on to talk about how camouflage could be used to enhance the look of "a certain kind of dwelling which is as ugly as it is common." He illustrates this with "before and after" drawings (shown below) of a house whose appearance could be greatly improved merely by making some changes "in the eaves, the windows, and the door, the porch, and the placing of shrubbery."

It is a quaint article, mostly made up of advice on how to compensate for ones physical imperfections, by using clothes and cosmetics to conceal what might otherwise be too apparent.

The article mentions the work of artist and naturalist Abbott H. Thayer, and, at the very end, Bement also talks briefly about his own wartime work with camouflage—

To keep him [the German U-boat commander] from learning our tricks we varied the [ship camouflage] diagrams, put in "jokers," discarded old ones and invented new ones continually. We kept him guessing. And while he was guessing, our ships were eluding him.

In the New York studio where this work was carried on under the direction of Mr. William Mackay there was an elaborate system of testing the designs. We had a periscope, small models of vessels, and various painted sea and sky backgrounds. Some captains of merchant vessels were skeptical about the value of camouflage and declared they wouldn't use it on their ships. But when they once saw, by means of these little models, how we could fool them, old sea dogs that they were, they became enthusiastic converts.

American painter Georgia O'Keeffe

Postscript (February 14, 2014): Since first posting this page in May 2012, we have located a news article from the Milwaukee Sentinel (April 18, 1943) titled MODERN MAGIC TO MYSTIFY OUR ENEMIES. It includes four photographs of civilian camouflage students at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York. One of the photographs is of a classroom setting in which nine students (seven women and two men) are listening to a lecture by their instructor, Alon Bement, described as "a veteran camoufleur of World War I." Bement is standing in front of a chalkboard, on which has been written the famous passage from Shakespeare's Macbeth in which the soldiers are camouflaged by foliage from trees in Birnam Wood. He is holding a dazzle-painted ship model. The caption reads—

These hard-working students of the art of camouflage are learning how to make things seem what they're not under the instruction of expert Alon Bement, one of the World War l's ablest camoufleurs.

Roy R. Behrens, O'Keeffe Homage. Digital montage (2011).

Camouflage Poet | Marvin Bell

On the Fly, Marvin Bell

Many years ago (has it been that long ago?), we organized a non-funded one-day symposium on camouflage, called CAMOUFLAGE: Art, Science and Popular Culture (Saturday, April 22, 2006 at the Kamerick Art Building at the University of Northern Iowa). Although only a few of our colleagues were there from the Department of Art, other scholars came from departments across campus, from around the country, and even from throughout the world, each one speaking sans honorarium, and each one paying completely for his/her own expenses. What an unforgettable day it was. Three of those who spoke that day have since published important books on the subject (Maite Méndez Baiges, Camuflaje: Engano y Ocultación en El Arte Contemporáneo (2007); Henrietta Goodden, Camouflage and Art: Design for Deception in World War 2 (2007); and Ann Elias, Camouflage Australia: Art, Nature, Science and War (2011)), and a poem that was written by American poet Marvin Bell (see online interview above), as a keynote for the conference, has since been reprinted in his recent book, Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems (2011). Soon, it will also be featured online as the poem of the week on Narrative Magazine. Here it is in full—


Marvin Bell (©2006)
from The Book of the Dead Man

                  Live as if you were already dead.
                                             —Zen admonition

1. About the Dead Man and Camouflage

When the dead man wears his camouflage suit, he hides
     in plain sight.
The dead man, in plain sight, disrupts the scene but cannot
     be seen.
His chocolate-chip-cookie shirt mimics the leaves in a breeze.
His frog-skin dress, his bumpy earth nature, leave us lost and
     alone, his mottled apparel sends us in circles.
His displacements distract and disabuse us, he is a
     slick beguiler.
Everything the dead man does is a slight disruption
     of normality.
He is the optical trickster, the optimum space-saver, the one
     to watch for.
He is of a stripe that flusters convention, he is the one
     to watch out for.
That we thought him gone only proves his wily knowledge.
The dead man has lain unseen among the relics of
     embalmed time.
He was always here, always there, right in front of us, timely.
For it was not in the dead man’s future to be preserved.
It was his fate to blend in, to appear in the form of,
     to become...
Now he lives unseen among the lilies, the pines, the
     sweet corn.
It was the dead man’s native desire to appear not to be.

2. More About the Dead Man and Camouflage

The dead man knows that camouflage is all in the mind.
He has seen in the human need for shape the undoing
     of shape.
He has witnessed the displacement of up-and-down, across
     and slantwise.
He has curled the straight lines and unbent the curves, he has
     split the wishbone and painted outside the lines.
The dead man has undone the map by which to get there.
It is not what the dead man looks like, but what
     he no longer resembles.
For he hath reappeared in no disguise but as himself.
Call him disheveled, call him disposed, call him shiftless,
     he is.
For he hath been made and remade in the form of
     his surroundings.
He hath become all things that he looketh like.
Hence, he has been stepped on by those who could not
     see him.
He has been knelt upon by those who looked in vain.
The dead man bestirs in a background that looked inert.
The dead man is the ultimate camouflage.
He is everywhere, but where is he?


Those who attended the conference that day were given, as a memento, a signed broadside of the poem (see below).

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Camouflage Artist | Arthur Singer

Birds of the Fifty States

There's a wonderful website called Singer Arts. It's all about the life and work of one of the best known American bird artists, a man named Arthur Singer (1917-1990). Even if people may not recognize his name, nearly everyone knows his work. He illustrated more than twenty books and bird identification guides, notably Birds of North America, and in 1982, he and his son Alan were commissioned by the US Postal Service to produce a two-set series of stamps, called Birds and Flowers of the Fifty States (shown here is the state bird series).

At the Singer Arts website, there is a 9-minute video interview of him with Charles Kuralt, numerous examples of his work, and a fairly detailed biographical page.

Oddly, it doesn't mention what may be Singer's greatest accomplishment: During World War II, he was recruited by the US Army to serve (with 1100 other men) in a top secret unit called the Ghost Army, aka 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. After arriving in Europe, they devised effective ways to deceive the German Army, using sonic and radio deception, visual camouflage, inflatable decoys and a mix of persuasive phony events. A major documentary film about this fascinating unit, titled The Ghost Army (produced by Rick Beyer), is nearing completion.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

More About William Andrew Mackay

Ship camouflage proposals by William Andrew Mackay

Since starting this blog, we have featured a number of posts either about William Andrew Mackay, an American muralist and World War I ship camouflage artist, or about various artists who worked with him as wartime camoufleurs in New York (see links below to previous posts). More recently, we've discovered full-color reproductions of at least two of his ship camouflage designs (shown above) in Lindell T. Bates, The Science of Low Visibility and Deception (New York: Submarine Defense Association, 1918).

These are cut-out ship silhouettes that were used for testing two different but related proposals by Mackay. Both of these are attempts to achieve low visibility by using small splotches of color (not unlike a Pointilist painting) which, at a great distance, would be seen as a nondescript ambient gray, less discernible than a simple, one-color "battleship gray." In the model at the top, Mackay has combined these low visibility splotches with large, disruptive patterns that (at somewhat closer distances) were intended to make it harder to see the ship as a single, continuous shape.

Mackay's drawing for US Patent No. 1,305,296 (1919)

In 1919, Mackay obtained a patent for a similar proposal. His patent drawing (above) and a full text account are online here.

There are surviving photographs of camouflaged ships using Mackay's methods. Shown below for example are WWI-era photographs of (top to bottom) of USS DeKalb, and USS Isabel (full view, followed by a deck detail).

USS DeKalb

USS Isabel (port side)

USS Isabel (close-up of camouflage pattern)

Other posts on this blog that pertain to William Andrew Mackay. For additional info, see brief biographical article in Camoupedia, and (especially) "Camouflage Science Explained" by Raymond Francis Yates (1919) in Ship Shape.

additional information

Monday, May 14, 2012

Camouflage Artist | Homer Saint-Gaudens

Above A portrait by Carlota Saint-Gaudens of her husband Lieutenant Homer Shiff Saint-Gaudens in his US Army uniform in 1917 when he was in charge of the camouflage corps. As published in International Studio (December 1919).


In the opening pages of Hannah Rose Shell's book about camouflage and surveillance, Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography, and the Media of Reconnaissance (Zone Books, 2012), she describes the resourcefulness of Homer Saint-Gaudens (1880-1958), who invented a way to make blanket-like camouflage coverings by shredding books and papers.

Recently I also found an online paper by Susan Platt, titled "Gambling, Fencing and Camouflage: Homer Saint-Gaudens and the Carnegie International 1922-1950." It was initially published in International Encounters (Carnegie Museum of Art) in 1996. Saint-Gaudens was the only child of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (the most famous sculptor of his time) and Augusta Homer Saint-Gaudens, also an artist, who was a distant cousin of Winslow Homer.

As Platt explains, the young Saint-Gaudens enjoyed gambling and fencing, and during World War I, he was the officer in charge of the American Camouflage Corps. Her thesis is not so much about Saint-Gaudens' camouflage service as about his presumed reliance on gambling, fencing and camouflaging skills in the decades while he was director of an annual competition called the Carnegie International Exhibition. In that capacity, she writes, he "would 'play the odds,' parry and thrust with the many different constituencies that he needed to satisfy, and disguise radical styles in the midst of bland examples in order to avoid attacks."

Homer Saint-Gaudens had earned his degree at Harvard, where his freshman roommate was future muralist Barry Faulkner (who soon dropped out to study art). Faulkner was a cousin of painter and naturalist Abbott H. Thayer, who was sometimes referred to in news articles as "the father of camouflage" because of his startling assertions about "concealing coloration" in animals. Faulkner had also studied with Saint-Gaudens' famous father, as had his friend, a sculptor named Sherry Edmundson Fry. Later, when Faulkner and Fry were living in New York, they formed a civilian camouflage group, called the New York Camouflage Society, for the purpose of preparing artists to serve as army camoufleurs. When the US actually entered the war, the two men were among the first to join a unit called the American Camouflage Corps. To their surprise, the person in charge of that unit was Homer Saint-Gaudens, who was fresh out of officer training.

It appears that other officers admired Saint-Gaudens, while the enlisted men despised him. According to Grenville Rickard, an architect and camoufleur who had graduated from Yale, and who served in France in WWI, "The 'Saint' [was] our generally accepted term for Lieutenant Saint-Gaudens…" but Faulkner (not an officer but an enlisted soldier in the same unit) recalls that Homer Saint-Gaudens was "intensely disliked by the men."

As Platt explains in detail, before and after WWI, Saint-Gaudens was employed in the theatre, as the stage manager for the widely-admired actress Maude Adams. In 1921, he was appointed Assistant Director of the Department of Fine arts at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, and then became the Director a year later.

It is of further interest that, in 1924, there was a new addition to the painting faculty at the Carnegie Institute. It was Everett Longley Warner, an artist who had been the head of a team of US Navy ship camoufleurs during WWI.


Below Roy R. Behrens, Angels Can Fly. Digital montage, print on paper (2011). Based partly on a photograph of a bronze sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1891) for the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington DC. The setting for the sculpture was designed by Stanford White. For detailed information, see Joyce K. Schiller, The Artistic Collaboration of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White. PhD dissertation. (St Louis MO: Washington University, 1997).

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dazzle-Camouflaged Kayak

We were delighted to happen upon a web link about a dazzle-camouflaged surface design for a kayak, designed by The Hungry Workshop, an Australian letterpress design studio. It was produced in connection with a five-day, 404 km race, as detailed on their web blog. Above and below are various views of the vessel's design, as photographed by Aj Moller. Copyright © for designs and images belong to their originators.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Camouflage Artist | Harry Crisson

Above The USS Aeolus, in the process of having its dazzle camouflage applied, at the New York Navy Yard (June 1, 1918). US Naval Historical Heritage Command. NH 919.

Until today, I'd never heard of Harry Crisson, who was an artist of French descent and a native of New Orleans. After hours of online searching, I still know very little. I did find him mentioned in a news article about the 1919 Mardi Gras in Galveston TX, the only city to hold that event that year (because of World War I). The unsigned article, titled "Mardi Gras Floats Being Decorated in Hidden Lands," appeared in the Galveston Daily News (February 23, 1919, p. 8). Here is what it says about Harry Crisson—

The artist has painted Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans during the past fifteen years. When Uncle Sam went to war against Germany [in 1917], he became a camoufleur for the United States Emergency Fleet Corporation. He camouflaged ships in a district which ran all the way from the Sabine River [in Texas and Louisiana] to Key West. He received his discharge shortly after the armistice was signed.

In this connection, he holds a letter which he would not care to lose, for it comes from the Emergency Fleet Corporation commending him for his ability to camouflage war vessels.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

American Ship Dazzle Plans

Above are three surviving cut-outs from World War I ship camouflage plans. Painted in watercolor on board and measuring 6" high x 29.25" wide, they were made by an unknown American camouflage artist(s) (c1917-18) and are now in the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Bureau of Ships. My suspicion is that these painted silhouettes were made for testing purposes on the shore of Lake Ontario, under the direction of Eastman Kodak physicist Loyd A. Jones.

Below is a diagram of a visibility testing setup, designed by Jones. The cut-out ship silhouette was suspended from the crossbeam with piano wire and positioned at a height at which it appeared to rest in the water. It was then viewed through a telescopic instrument (devised by Jones) called a visibility meter, and measurements were made of its reflected light. It seems that all the other marine camouflage centers used three-dimensional plaster or wooden scale models of ships, not silhouettes, and substantially different testing methods. For detailed information on Jones' methodology, see Robert G. Skerrett, "Hoodwinking the Periscope" (originally published in 1919), reprinted in SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook (pp. 122-151).

Friday, May 4, 2012

Camouflaged Mermaids and Water Nymphs

 Above A cartoon from Harper's magazine (September 1919), with the caption: "To Decrease Visibility: Why not camouflage stockings?"

The following paragraph (about camouflage beachwear) appeared in the Little Oddities of Life section of Illustrated World (1918), p. 369, with the heading "Mermaid Indulges in Camouflage"—

The surf seemed deserted. Scores of masculine "beach combers" and "sand lizards" thronged the Board Walk, watching the breakers roll in at Atlantic City and looking for mermaids and water nymphs. None were visible, yet one sported in the waves. The camera revealed what was not apparent to the eye. With her alluring figure hidden by a camouflaged swimming suit, this pretty bather dared the dangers of lurking U-boats and over-curious spectators. Thus the "now you see it; now you don't" bathing costume became the rage. It is rumored that next season these suits will be made for fat men and mothers-in-law. These bathing suits present great possibilities for the paragraphers and the wits, besides offering opportunities for clever filming to the comedy movie man. The Tired Business Man, however, will not suffer unnecessarily from eye strain on his vacation.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dazzle Camouflage Swimsuits

The photograph above of British women beach goers dressed in dazzle-style swimwear appeared in The New York Tribune (June 15, 1919, p. 4), with the following caption:

The newest things in bathing suits brighten the beach at Margate, England. The "dazzle" designs of gayest hue defeat the usual purpose of camouflage, that of promoting low visibility.

A week later, the following article, titled “Camouflage Sylphs on Coney Island an Optical Illusion: Stripes of Bathing Costumes Used by Plump Persons to Conceal Full Extent of Their Plumpness,” appeared in the same newspaper (June 23, 1919, p. 7)—

The camouflage bathing suit made its appearance yesterday at Coney Island with the result that there were all sorts of complications among the 250,000 visitors to the resort. It became apparent that the idea, lately imported from Bath, Brighton and other English watering places, has manifold possibilities.

One very stout woman on the beach, for instance, had used such artistry in the arrangement of the ‘lightning stripes’ on her costume that she presented a positively sylph-like figure to the eyes to those some twenty yards or so distant. Many persons who had seen through the deception were amused by the antics of certain sportive young men, who from time to time started in the direction of the camouflaged damsel and then, when they obtained a close-up, kept right on going.

Many of the camouflage costumes were obviously homemade, and it was evident that their wearers had not had an opportunity to perfect themselves in more that the mere elementary principles of the art. In other words, they accentuated angles instead of rounding them, and emphasized rather than concealed avoirdupoise.

It is expected, however, that the new fad will be highly developed before the season is over. Following the service yesterday of fourteen summons upon persons who appeared in the streets in uncovered bathing suits the suggestion was made that camouflage might be perfected to the point where it would hide offenders from the eagle-eyed Coney Island police.

additional information

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

WWI Camouflage Chateau

During World War I, the US Committee on Public Information influenced public attitudes toward the war by sending out amusing news photographs. This one, taken at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg SC (c1918), is (according to its caption) an "elaborate example of camouflage…" Adorned by members of the 102nd Engineers, it was the living quarters of the 1st Battalion's Adjutant, Captain C.J. Dieges. A sign above the door reads "Chateau Camouflage." One hundred thousand soldiers trained at Camp Wadsworth, a major army mobilization center between 1917 and 1919.