Sunday, March 20, 2016

Abbott H. Thayer's Camouflage at Williams College

Thayer Exhibition as viewed through duck silhouette
Several years ago, as we repeatedly blogged about then, it became known that a substantial number of artifacts (drawings, paintings, demonstrations, photographs, letters and so on) had been located that pertain directly to the early camouflage research by American artist Abbott H. Thayer (1849-1921). The source for some of these artifacts was the Thayer Family Estate (who had given about a hundred items to the Smithsonian Institution in 1949), while a second substantial cache was in the possession of Richard Meryman, a prominent writer and editor (author of Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life) whose father (artist Richard Sumner Meryman) had been Thayer’s student and a US Army camoufleur during World War I.

Under the sponsorship of Gold Leaf Studios (Washington DC), on behalf of the family estate, some of these artifacts were first shown publicly in the spring of 2013 in an exhibition at the National Sporting Museum and Library in Middleburg VA. The following spring, a second exhibition (featuring much of the same material) was held at the Army and Navy Club in DC, supported in part by the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art. In both cases, the exhibits were accompanied by a full-color exhibition catalog, titled Abbott Handerson Thayer: A Beautiful Law of Nature, edited by Ari Post. The opening for the second exhibition included presentations by a panel of five Thayer and camouflage scholars, among them Richard Meryman.

Now (again beginning in the spring), a third installation of camouflage-related materials from this large Thayer archive has opened only days ago at the Williams College Museum of Art (Meryman’s alma mater). Curated by Kevin M. Murphy and titled Not Theories but Revelations: The Art and Science of Abbott Handerson Thayer, the exhibition opened on March 11 and continues through August 21, 2016. In time, the exhibit will be supplemented by a 136-page catalog, with the same title, prepared by the curator, with a foreword by museum director Tina Olsen. While we haven’t yet seen the exhibition (nor the catalog, which won’t actually come out until June), we have seen some of its components, as is apparent from online photographs.

From those exhibition photographs, it appears that a virtue of this event is the unorthodox manner in which the items are installed. For example, instead of a neutral background, the walls on which the items are hung are covered with an elegant camouflage-patterned wallpaper. The effect is both appropriate and wonderful. Another conspicuous innovation is the use of a cut-out silhouette of a duck, through which one is able to view the exhibition as a disruptive inversion of figure and ground. As we have earlier blogged about, Thayer made frequent use of cut-out silhouettes of animals, soldiers, indigenous warriors and so on. One of the most famous examples of this is a painting of a copperhead snake (with a cut-out silhouette overlay) by his student Rockwell Kent, as was published in the famous book that he produced with his naturalist son (author of record), Gerald Handerson Thayer, titled Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909/1918).

Thayer—the artist, the naturalist, and the person himself—is a topic of limitless interest, as confirmed by the ever-mounting surge of books, films, dissertations, magazine articles, and exhibitions about the so-called “father of camouflage” and his two-pronged impassioned commitment to the science and art of concealment that have come out in just the past thirty years. The subject has gone viral, and there are still others now “in press,” including an important documentary film.

By the way (not pertaining to camouflage), one great highlight of the Williams College exhibition is the first public showing (unless I’m mistaken) of one of Thayer’s portraits of his enigmatic model Alma Wollerman, who later became his daughter-in-law. As he often did, he produced differing “end results” (at least three or four, I think) of this one astonishing painting.

Abbott H. Thayer silhouette camouflage demonstration