Monday, March 30, 2020

Freighters as unrecognizable as a portrait by Picasso

Hypothetical dazzle schemes © Roy R. Behrens
Lee Simonson, THE WAR AS ART CRITIC in Minor Prophecies. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927, pp. 87-88—

Among the startling ironies of this war [World War I] is the role it has assigned to the artist. He had remained an image-maker, primarily interested in recording fields in sunlight, women disrobing, bowls of fruit, and sprays of flowers. To his amazement, he found himself necessary to assure the efficience of a fifty-millimeter gun, the safety of a cargo of herring, or the sale of a million bonds. 

Hypothetical dazzle schemes © Roy R. Behrens
The technique of his purely pictorial experiments, impressionism which had bewildered the juries of fifty years ago, became part of the technique of war. For camouflage began with the discovery by the manager of the largest emporium at Lyons that if a sentry’s cape were dabbed with color in much the same manner as Monet had painted a haystack, the sentry became a less obvious target. The development of camouflage has paralleled in its logic the development of modern art. 

Hypothetical dazzle schemes © Roy R. Behrens
As one passes the camouflaged steamers in our harbors it is apparent that the particular system of color planes which disguise them would never have been so readily devised if the clue to it had not already existed in cubist and futurist canvases. The atmospheric unity binding figure and landscape in a picture has been transferred to the soldier in the field, and the identity of a freighter becomes as unrecognizable as the features of Mr. X in a portrait by Picasso. We have found that naked weapons are ineffective, and called on the artist to decorate them.


Saturday, March 28, 2020

Only spurious resemblance—or is it natural mimicry

Above (top) is a rendering of an especially odd-looking insect, native to the Amazon, the Latin name of which is Fulgora laternaria. A so-called planthopper, it is more commonly known as the lantern fly, peanut bug, and alligator bug. It is frequently cited as an example of natural mimicry, perhaps as Batesian mimicry, in which a harmless species is in part protected from predators because it resembles a harmful species.

It is widely claimed, for example, that monarch butterflies are unpalatable to birds, which learn to avoid them. As a consequence, there are other monarch look-alikes, non-toxic and otherwise harmless, that are also avoided by birds. American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer, who collaborated with his artist-naturalist son, Gerald Thayer, in 1909 on a major book about animal coloration, was doubtful of Batesian mimicry. Although the concept is mentioned more than thirty times in the Thayers’ 260-page opus, their references differ considerably from the meaning that Bates had intended. Thayer’s skepticism about the link between unpalatability and mimicry was sufficient that he took a trip to the West Indies, where various mimics of monarchs are found. “He actually tasted them,” recalled his daughter Gladys, who traveled with him, “and could find no difference in the flavor.”

In the case of the lantern fly or peanut bug, it is thought to make use of mimetic resemblance in two ways: One is that, if startled, it responds by unfurling its bottom wings, revealing large, conspicuous eyespots or ocelli (as seen in the top illustration), and emitting a “foul-smelling substance.” The other, less convincing way in which it may benefit from mimicry is found in the puzzling shape of its snout (as shown in the photograph above), which certainly looks like a peanut, but which some scientists also claim might easily be mistaken for the head of a snake, a lizard, or even an alligator.

Examples like these inevitably bring up the question of which instances of “mimicry” are not mimicry at all, but are merely the result of projections on the part of the viewer, such as occurs in our sightings of Rohrschach ink-blots, images in the clouds, or pictures of Christ on tortillas. Arthur Koestler spoke of this in The Act of Creation (pp. 375-376)—

Pliny recounted the anecdote of an artist who tried in vain to paint the foam at a dog’s mouth until, in exasperation, he threw a spongeful of paint at the canvas—and there was the foam. The story reappears in Leonardo’s Treatise on Paintings—where he makes “our Botticelli” say that if you just throw a sponge at a wall, it will “leave a blot where one sees a fine landscape.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Architect Harold Sterner documented ship camouflage

American architect Harold Sterner
Albert Sterner (1863-1946) was a prominent American painter and illustrator. His brother was an architect, Frederick Sterner (1862-1931), whose commissions included the Denver Athletic Club (1889), and Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs CO (1901).

In 1888, Albert Sterner moved to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian. He returned to the US in 1918, to teach at the Art Students League in New York. As shown in the photograph below, he also designed war posters.

Albert Sterner creating war poster (1918)

Albert Sterner’s son was an architect named Harold Sterner (1895-1976), who later designed the Helena Rubenstein beauty spa at 715 Fifth Avenue in New York. Harold Sterner’s mother was Marie Walther Sterner, founder and director of the Marie Sterner Gallery (1920-1950).

Harold Sterner attended St George’s School in Newport RI, then studied architecture at MIT, where he graduated in 1917. That same year, he enlisted in the US Navy, where he was assigned to the camouflage department, in the Third Naval District. During his wartime service (according to a listing of MIT graduates), he “kept records of types of camouflage on vessels entering New York Harbor, sending drawings to Washington to be checked with original designs.”

He opened his own architectural firm in 1932. While never formally trained as a painter, he produced a substantial number of drawings and paintings of ships, some of which were given to the South Street Seaport Museum in New York.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Robert Baden-Powell's camouflaged spy diagrams

If anyone recalls the name of Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Baden-Powell, most likely it's because he was the founder of the Boy Scouts (and co-founder of the Girl Scouts). But he also worked as a spy for the British Secret Intelligence Service, as described and illustrated in his book My Adventures as a Spy (London: C. Arthur Pearson, 1915). No longer under copyright, it is available online to download as a pdf.

In one instance, he pretended to be a lepidopterist in what was then Dalmatia (now Croatia). Walking along with a net and sketchbook, he positioned himself on hills overlooking strategic fortresses and appeared to make drawings of butterflies, one of which is shown above. In truth, within those drawings, he was concealing cryptic diagrams (camouflaged or embedded figures) of the structures and their armaments.

He recommended such activities. Indeed, as he states in his book, "…for anyone who's tired of life, the thrilling life of a spy should be the very finest recuperator!"

Monday, March 23, 2020

Paint manufacturers, scenographers, and camoufleurs

Harrison Marine Paints Advertisement (1918)
Above There are apparently no full-color photographs of WWI-era camouflaged ships, since color photography (as we know it) had not yet been perfected. But there are thousands of black-and-white photographs, hand-painted ship models (used for testing), and artists' full-color drawings and paintings of ships, including colored diagrams that were used as reference plans as the ships were being painted. There is also this rather extraordinary magazine advertisement that appeared on the back cover of DuPont Magazine: A Review of American Industrial Progress (Wilmington DE) Vol IX No 1, July 1918. Unfortunately, the artist is not credited.


Paint manufacturers of the United States, Paint and Varnish in the Great War. Washington DC: Institute for Industrial Research, 1919, p. 8—

Ships of war are ships of steel…[and are] serviceable only as long as [they are] protected from corrosion. Paint protection is therefore a necessity to the successful operation of a battle fleet. To the uninitiated, it might seem rather surprising to learn that the coating of one large ship may require over 100 tons of paint and that the painting is renewed practically every six months in order to maintain permanent protection and appearance.


SHIPYARD NEWS: CAMOUFLEURS HERE THROW OUT CHESTS: Pennsylvania Shipyard Force Claims Record for Disguising War Emergency Vessels in Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia PA), December 3, 1918, p. 6—

The Pennsylvania shipyard camoufleurs are getting increased chest measurements.

They boast of the honor of having camouflaged the first and last ship built on the Delaware River for war emergency purposes.

The first ship on which the paint shop artists spilled their gaudy colors was the [USS] John M. Connelly, a 7,000-ton tanker which was launched November 10, 1917.

USS John M. Connelly in dazzle camouflage

The last vessel so decorated to deceive the eye, before the armistice was signed, was the [USS} Indianapolis, a 12,800-ton cargo carrier launched July 4 of this year.

According to the paint shop workers of the Pennsylvania yard at Gloucester, the finishing touches were put on the Indianapolis on November 11, the big day when the glorious news arrived.

USS Indianapolis in dazzle camouflage

The paint shop in the Gloucester yard is in the charge of Harry Epting, foreman.

Virtually all the deceptive lining placed on the ships was done by G.V. Ancker and the fields between colored by the brush wielders of the paint shop.

But the general supervision of the camouflage work fell on the shoulders of Paul [Bernard] King, of the camouflage department of the United States Shipping Board.

We’ve recently learned that G.V. Anker (who drew the outlines of the camouflage schemes on the ships, while less skillful painters filled them in) worked for the Nixon-Nirdlinger Theatrical Company and other major theatres in Philadelphia. In the early 1920s, he relocated to Camden NJ, and established his own firm, in which he designed and painted a wide range of components (including elaborate parade floats), as described in his advertisement below. Of particular distinction was his interior design for the New Lyric Theatre in Camden.

G.V. Anker Company Advertisement (1924)

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Was Norman Rockwell a WWI camouflage artist?

Norman Rockwell, Rosie the Riveter
Did American illustrator Norman Rockwell serve as a camouflage artist during World War I? There are differing accounts, one of which was published in International Studio in September 1923, pp. 521-522—

When the United States entered the war, Rockwell was one of many young men from New Rochelle to volunteer for the Navy. He was sent to Charleston, en route overseas for camouflage work, but he never got beyond the embarkation port. His superiors were delighted by the discovery that he could paint portraits, so in Charleston he stayed and found himself extremely busy, for while his talent won him much consideration, other duties fell to his lot as well. During this period, the magazines did not lose track of his whereabouts and got special permission for him to continue making covers with timely subjects of strong patriotic appeal. With the signing of the armistice, he was anxious to be discharged as quickly as possible. His commanding officer was willing to comply with his wishes but was powerless to act, orders having been issued indefinitely postponing the granting of any honorable discharges. He discovered one channel, however—men could be discharged because of "inadaptability," and so it happened that Norman Rockwell, nationally known illustrator, was discharged from the United States Navy upon the ground of "inadaptability" as a third-class varnisher and painter.

Other sources have provided other versions, such as for example a Patriots Point blog post (2010) titled Norman Rockwell at the Charleston Navy Yard.

He continued to use his illustration skills during World War II, among the most famous examples of which was his portrait of Rosie the Riveter (shown above), which was used as a cover for the Saturday Evening Post in 1943.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Camouflage and presidential paintbrush wars in 1920

Harding versus Cox
CAMOUFLAGERS! in San Francisco Examiner. October 20, 1920—

The camouflage artists of World War fame could not have done a better job than that forcibly practiced on each other by a pair of Berkeley [house] painters during a dispute yesterday over the qualities of [James M.] Cox and [Warren G.] Harding for the presidency.

When the police arrived in answer to a riot call sent in by neighbors in the vicinity of a new building which was being painted at the corner of Camilia Street and San Pablo Avenue, [the house painters] C.W. Blackley and Harry Wessess, both [from] Berkeley, were using the final drippings of two large containers of paint in an effort to impress their respective points.

At each swish of the brush in the direction of his adversary, Wessess emphasized with a burst of profanity. Blackley, on the other hand, was carrying on quiet warfare with just as successful results in dopping up Wessess.

Because of his outbursts which formed the principle plaint of neighbors, Wessess was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace. At his arraignment, Wessess pleaded guilty and his case was set for sentence on Thursday. He obtained his release on $20 bail.


Regarding the politics of the day, journalist H.L. Mencken wrote—

It reminds me of a string of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a kind of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm... of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is balder and dash.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Nishan Toor | Phony tree trunk as observation post

Nishan Toor with tree-like observation post
Recently we ran across a curious news article, accompanied by a poor quality World War I photograph from the battlefield in France. The article was published in the San Francisco Examiner on February 16, 1919. Only a few days earlier, as described in an earlier post, a group of California artists, who had served in France as camoufleurs with the Fortieth Engineers, arrived home from the war. We published a list of the artists, but, in this particular article, four of them are mentioned by name: Stanley Long, Frank W. Swaim, Sam Macloud, and Nishan Tooroonjian (who changed his name to Nishan Toor).

Published beside the article is a photograph (shown above) of Armenian-born artist Nishan Toor standing beside an observation lookout post, made to be a look-alike for an actual rotted tree trunk that it was a replacement for. This is described in the article thus—

A San Francisco sculptor, N, Tooroonjian, made a complete tree with a regular trap door for purposes of sniping and observation.

"There was a real tree on our front that the Germans had been used to looking at for some time. This was in an exposed position and was used for locating artillery ranges," said the sculptor.

"I studied this tree and made a duplicate from artificial material. We sneaked out one night, tumbled over the real tree and placed my imitation about fifty feet from where the old one had been. We spent a couple of days digging a tunnel which led to the make-believe tree and our boys were able to have a good view of the German lines for some time.

"Also the Hun shells were landing just fifty feet away from where they were supposed to hit."

Oliver Percy Bernard | Camoufleur and Scenographer

Oliver Percy Bernard (c1915)
The RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. It sank in 18 minutes, eleven miles off the southern coast of Ireland. Among the fatalities were 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 American citizens. Among the survivors was a British architect and stage designer named Oliver Percy Bernard, who gained importance later as an Art Deco interior designer. But he also played a significant role in World War I British army camouflage. When the Lusitania sank, Bernard was moving back to London from Boston.

On May 8, there was an article in the Boston Post, with the headline ARTIST AMONG PASSENGERS: Oliver Bernard in Boston All Winter. It included a photograph of Bernard (above), accompanied by the following text—

Oliver Bernard, one of the passengers on the Lusitania, lived with Dr, and Mrs. Arial W. George of 38 Winchester Street, Brookline, from last October until he sailed for England.

Mr. Bernard was the director and resident artist of the Royal Opera House, London. He was also the business manager of the English Players, who were in Boston some weeks ago.


About twenty years later, Bernard (known to friends as “Bunny”) published an autobiography, titled Cock Sparrow: A True Chronicle [WorldCat lists it as fiction] (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936). Bernard was small and terribly hard of hearing, and the title refers to the slanderous name that he had been given by bullies. We have searched for a copy of his autobiography for years, either to buy or to borrow. Interlibrary loan requests have not been successful. When it first came out, there was the following brief review in the Sydney Morning Herald (July 25, 1936), p. 12—

Mr. Oliver Bernard is now a successful interior decorator in London, but his training for that position is by no means like most others of his colleagues. For that reason, his autobiography makes fascinating reading. We see the successful decorator as a small and unhappy boy, as an assistant in a scenery painting studio, as a deck-hand on a Norwegian windjammer, as an American stage designer, and, finally, as a camouflage expert during the war. In the interval of following these various activities, Mr. Bernard also went down with the Lusitania, about which experience he writes illuminatingly, and formulated his own design for living. In revealing the stages of this mental growth he is not so successful as when chronicling the highlights of his adventures. It is, perhaps, those very adventures and their variety which have left him a little muddled, and, consequently, his literary method tends toward diffuseness. But as a camouflage expert reconciling the arts of war and the arts of painting, he has such an unusual and interesting topic that the book becomes really worthwhile. Indeed, he feels so himself, for he devotes most of his chapters to the war years, and leaves the chronicle of his life at that point.


To date, the best, most detailed discussion of Bernard’s contributions as a British camoufleur (short of someday obtaining his memoir) is in Nicholas Rankin’s excellent book, A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars (UK: Oxford University Press, 2009).  See also War and Theatrical Innovation (2017).

To avoid confusion, it helps to know that Oliver Percy Bernard had a son who is also cited as Oliver Bernard, known for his translations of Arthur Rimbaud.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Origins of camouflage | a chat about the Trojan Horse

US Patent 2743104
John Kendrick Bangs, AT THE HOUSEBOAT ON THE STYX: The Matter of Camouflage in The Sunday Star (Washington DC), March 24, 1918, Part Four, p. 6—

“The most interesting thing to me about this row [World War I] that is going on on the other side of the river,“ said Michelangelo, as he sculpted the Kaiser’s head out of his camembert and tossed it to Dick Whittington’s cat, “is the business of camouflage, and, proud as I am of my own achievement along the lines of art, I take off my hat to these French and American artists who can kalsomine a fleet of forty-six battleships so that it looks like a strawberry shortcake floating on the surface of the ocean a mile away, and can titivate a battlefront with colored chalk and gewgaws that to the eye of a German spy it appears to be nothing more than a row of peace-loving Charlotte roosters greeting the dawn with a song.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Mike,” said Savonarola, who happened to be lunching at the club that day, having wearied of his third consecutive eat-less week. “I wouldn’t wear out the brim of my hat taking it off to those chaps if I were you. They didn’t invent camouflage. It is as old as the everlasting hills, and I don’t know that your modern camouflage had anything on some of our first families of Italy when it came to flagging an enemy in the good old days of long ago. You were no piker in the camouflage line yourself, Mickey, dear.”

“What, I?” said Michelangelo, apparently very much surprised.


George Morrow (Punch), reprinted in Cartoons Magazine (1919)

“Si, signor—sure, pop," said Savonarola. “I have known you to take a piece of plain, common garden, kiln-dried brick that was so poor in quality that it couldn’t even be used on a government contract in Russia, and as raucously red as a New Jersey mud-bank, and with a few deft strokes of your brush turn it into a baby-blue masterpiece that an American squillionaire would pay $945,429.20 for at an auction sale. You know that as well as I do, and then look at Lucretia Borgia—“

“Lucretia Borgia?” echoed Michelangelo. “Oh, come now, Savvy, what in all chimera had Lucretia Borgia to do with camouflage?”

“She was a pippin at it, that’s what,” returned Savonarola. “Camouflage was the lady’s long suit.”

“Well, I never knew that before,” laughed Michelangelo. “As I recall Lucretia’s record she ran a sort of deluxe delicatessen shop for people who were tired of life.”

“Ask Leonardo da Vinci if I am not right,” persisted Savonarola. “How about it, Len?”

“You can search me, Savvy,” smiled da Vinci. “Now you’ve got it you’d better keep the floor yourself.”

US Patent 4989856

“O tut!” retorted Savonarola. “I thought you chaps had some brains. Why, my dearly beloved Bambini, if Lucretia Borgia wasn’t Queen of the May in the line of pure camouflage, I’m blest if I know what else you’d call her. Did you ever see one of her Welsh rabbits?”

“I’ve heard of them,” said da Vinci, “but I never ate one. Fact is, I made it a rule never to eat anything at any of the Borgia chafing dish parties.”

“Sure,” said Savonarola, “ and that’s just my point. These Welsh rabbits of Lucretia’s were pure camouflage—“ Michelangelo laughed.

“Oh, I see,” said he, “you’re thinking of camembert, Savvy. We were talking of camouflage. Camouflage isn’t a cheese, you know.”

"I know what camouflage is just as well as you do,” retorted Savonarola, reddening angrily. “And when I say that Lucretia’s Welsh rabbits were pure camouflage, I mean it. They appeared to be one thing when in reality they were another. On the surface they were the most innocent-looking little bits of golden sunshine that ever gloried a piece of toast. To look at ‘em you’d say that as symbols of peaceful innocence they had the doe lashed to the everlasting mast—but underneath! Largo di Garda, Mike, they were seething maelstroms of destruction, and the man or woman Lucretia wanted permanently removed from the social register after they had eaten a half-portion of a Borgia-made golden buck had about as much chance of getting home alive as they’d have if they’d swallowed a drug store. Socrates’ hemlock cocktail was as buttermilk alongside one of the fair Lucretia’s loganberry flips.”


“I hadn’t thought of it in that light, but I see your point,” said Michelangelo, “and while I deprecate Lucretia’s fondness for getting her guests fed up on cyanide of potassium and other indelicacies, I am glad if Italy may lay claim to the paternity of the wonderful art we are discussing.”

US Patent D461331

“Italy nothing,” interjected Shakespeare. “I guess you never read my play of Macbeth, Mike?”

“Ah?” laughed Michelangelo. “Another bit of dramatic camouflage I suspect, my beloved bard—ostensibly Shakespeare, but underneath a mere side of bacon. That it, Bilious?”

“Oh,” said Shakespeare, amiably, “I’m perfectly satisfied to let that matter rest just where it stands. I’m beginning to believe from the way my works are being attributed to everybody but me that even at that I was the most distinguished person of my time, since I seem to be the only guy then living who didn’t write ‘em. But the point I wanted to make was that whoever it was that wrote my play of Macbeth he foresaw this whole business of camouflage when he disguised Macbeth’s enemies as a picnic grove so that when Macbeth saw what he thought was Birnam Wood marching on toward him with a real Sousa swing, it gave him an attack of the Willies that left him as full of pep in the hands of MacDuff as a bolshevik in the presence of a German peace soliloquy. Don’t you remember that line—

As I stand my watch upon the hill
I look’d toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.

“Never heard ‘em before, Bill, but if you say they’re there I’ll take your word for it,” replied Michelangelo. “It only goes to prove my point that after all art is the original knock-out. Whether it was invented by you with your peripatetic picnic park, or Lucretia Borgia with her cunning little rabbits so disengaging in their habits that started it, camouflage was some discovery.”

“If I went further back than you imagine,” put in Priam, sadly, spreading a thick layer of horseradish on his toast, "It may have done a lot for MacDuff, but I went to tell you right now, boys, it ruined me. I had the nicest little kingdom in the world up around Troy. It had Seattle and Oklahoma City and all the rest of your marvels of modern growth backed off the map. We were all happy and prosperous until that fool son of mine, Paris, awarded the blue ribbon for beauty to Venus, and thereby knocked us all galley-west. That decision made certain other ladies of the Olympian Sorosis so immortally mad that they sicked the Greeks on me at a time when preparedness was my short suit. But even at that, they had to use camouflage to put me on the mat. We had ‘em beaten to a frazzle when some wizard on the Greek side got the big idea. He induced Agamemnon to holler for peace, and as a token of Greek sincerity instead of handing me a loving cup, they made me a present of a horse several miles larger than the Statue of Liberty. You know the rest. That old cob looked like a midway stunt at a world’s fair, and while I didn’t want the darned thing any more than London wants Barnard’s statue of Lincoln, I thought it would please the children, and took it.”


US Patent 3138376

“And then what?” said Wat Tyler.

“Then what?” roared Priam. “Do you mean to tell me you never heard of the Trojan horse?”

“No,” said Tyler. “I never studied mathematics.”

“Well, it was a horse on me, all right!” said Priam, moodily. “It was built of wood and stucco, and was about the size of Billy Sunday’s tabernacles. It was mounted on wheels and rolled into our Central Park by the Greek peace delegation, and formally accepted by my royal highness as a token of Agamemnon’s love. We made a great festival of the occasion. All the schools were closed for the day, and the leading Nestors and Chauncey Depewsters of the time delivered addresses on the ‘Era of Good Feeling’ and ‘The End of the War’ and ‘The Overthrow of Mars’ and so on, from every angle of that old rag, and then when, as a grand climacteric, I climbed up the old hack’s neck and planted a Trojan flag in one ear and a Greek flag in the other, while the band played ’There Are No Pals Like the Old Pals,’ the populace yelled themselves to exhaustion with joy. Like a Bolshevik boob on a Potsdam payroll, I ordered the army demobilized, and went to bed happy. And then—“

Priam wept bitter tears.


“And the camouflage got in its fine work,” he resumed, nerving himself up with a long deep draft of Worcestershire sauce. “That old horse wasn’t a horse at all. It was a cantonment! Instead of being a mere bit of equine pleasantry it turned out to be a division of Rough Riders, only they rode inside the horse instead of on his back. The horrible beast held the whole Greek general staff, fifteen brigades of discus throwers, seven regiments of natural gasoliers armed to the teeth the fiercest kind of Greek propaganda, and a highly efficient fire department that for making things burn to ashes beat anything in that line in all history. They started the home fires burning and kept ‘em going to the last flicker of the ultimate ember. In short, Wat, while I slept, dreaming sweet dreams of peace, those Greeks inside shinned down that old jade’s hind legs, and when I waked up in the morning Troy was a flickering reminiscence.…”

US Patent 2448390

“Well,” said Homer, who had been a yawning listener to the discussion, “you’re all off in thinking the Trojan horse was the beginning of camouflage…Savonarola was right when he said camouflage was as old as the hills…

“Noah probably thought Ararat was a sea beach until he found his own scow stranded on top of a mountain. Eve doubtless thought the serpent was a gentleman and discovered later that he was a snake. Life is full of it. That things are seldom what they seem the sages have told us for myriads of years. Art is eternal, and eternity works both ways, fore and aft. We have always had camouflage and we’ll continue to have it to the end.”

Monday, March 16, 2020

Camouflage used as film theatre entrance advertising

Theatre entrance for The Geezer of Berlin (1918), NYC
In a wartime issue of Motography (November 10, 1917, p. 975), a brief article appeared in which it was asserted by a Hollywood advertising executive that “There is absolutely no excuse…for making motion picture posters deceptive.” In the article, titled Camouflage Has No Place in Poster Making, the executive goes on to say that ”Camouflage has its uses but it does not lend itself to the theatre lobby.”

Almost a year later, this was contradicted by a full-page article in Motion Picture News (October 5, 1918, p. 2189) titled Lobby Display Gets Laughs and Pulls in Crowds to See “The Geezer of Berlin.” It describes a successful advertising ploy devised M. Kashin, theatre manager of The Broadway Theatre in New York.

In an effort to increase attendance at the showing of a propaganda film (the “geezer” in the title, of course, is Kaiser Wilhelm II), Kashin transformed the theatre entrance, as well as the inside lobby, by installing "dazzle camouflage" designs, cartoons, and humorous posters.

The “vivid colors” of the “real camouflage” on the facade, the article states, “are enough to stop anyone in their tracks,” and in turn to lead the audience to a cut-out of “Der Geezer,” as well as satirical posters about “The Clown Prince,” “Gott of Germany,” “Hindebug,” and “Turpentine.”

Reproduced above is a photograph of Kashin’s design for the entrance. In an article published elsewhere (titled Inexpensive Lobby Displays), Kashin discussed his methods for devising this and other advertising novelties. He wrote: “I have found that the lobby display, worked out to its finest detail, will bring more results than any other form of advertising…”

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Camoufleur and Hollywood star Wheeler Oakman

USS Major Wheeler
The SS Tuscania (launched in 1914) was a Cunard luxury liner until it was refitted in 1916 to serve as a wartime troopship. In late January 1918, it left New Jersey en route to Liverpool, with 2,013 US soldiers aboard. Although it had been painted in a dazzle camouflage scheme (not shown on this page), it was sunk by a German U-boat on February 5. More than 200 personnel perished. This was detailed in an earlier post.

On June 8, 1919, the Washington Post reported that the actor Wheeler Oakman, “considered one of the best looking and talented of [Hollywood’s] younger leading men” had returned from service in France, where he had been a camoufleur with San Francisco’s 144th artillery regiment. Earlier, despite the success of his acting career, the sinking of the Tuscania “fired his long-smoldering patriotism.” In response, he “appealed to Metro to release him from his contract and enlisted as a private” in the San Francisco regiment. Shipped to France, “he got as far forward as the second-line trench below Verdun on the Marne as one of the 24 members of his regiment’s camouflage corps.”

This Hollywood celebrity, the article notes, “is a fighter by heritage and actor by nature. In answering the call to arms the actor only heeded the fighting blood of his family.” His given name was Wheeler because his famous cousin was Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler (1836-1906), a Confederate general in the Civil War, and a US Army general in the Spanish- and Philippine-American wars. Affiliated with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, he fought at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898. During World War I, an American ship was named for him. It may have been the USS Major Wheeler, shown above in a dazzle camouflage scheme.

Joseph Wheeler (bearded), and Theodore Roosevelt (right)

Before and after the war, Wheeler Oakman was a star in countless Hollywood films, from 1913 to 1948. In his earlier acting days, he was usually a leading man, but those opportunities decreased with film's transition from silent to sound. In later years, he was usually cast as a villain.

Poster for one of Wheeler Oakman's films

Tom Mix stands tall | fearless, he is every inch a man

Cowboy film star Tom Mix \ he was every inch a man!
Surely, no one appreciates reader responses more than we do. But admittedly we were surprised by the number of followers who objected to our most recent post, in which we appeared to make light of the diminished stature of American artist Charles Lasar, who was fondly known as "Shorty Lasar."  To make amends, we are now posting a WWI-era Hollywood film advertisement for the famous cowboy actor Tom Mix (1880-1940). He stands heroically on his horse, keeping a look-out for outlaws. The caption reads:

Every Inch a Man! There is no camouflage about him!—no doubles to do his difficult stunts!—no actor on the face of the earth who can do what he does! TOM MIX: the man who never fakes…he is the reincarnation of fearlessness —a dare-devil who flirts with death.

In his personal life, he may have flirted otherwise too, since he was married five times. His thirst for adventure extended to cars. He died in 1940, at age sixty, when his speeding 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton swerved to avoid a highway flood detour and overturned in a desert wash near Florence AZ. The crash site is now known as the "Tom Mix Wash."

Reproduced below is another full-page ad with the same theme: Tom Mix Doesn't Camouflage, from the September-October 1918 issue of Motion Picture News.

Let it be known that we have equally high regard for Charles Lasar, however diminutive. In our opinion, he too was every inch a man.

Tom Mix doesn't camouflage

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Two artists recall Paris and the origins of camouflage

American artist J. Alden Weir
The US entered World War I on April 6, 1917. About three weeks later, in an issue of American Art News (Vol 15 No 29), it was announced that an American Camouflage group had formed. Its membership consisted of thirteen artists whose purpose was “to put their art at the disposal of the government,” and “to use protective colors as a means of deceiving the enemy.”

Among the artists listed was Abbott H. Thayer (1849-1921), who would increasingly be known as “the father of camouflage,” largely because of a book co-authored with his son, titled Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, initially published in 1909. A dozen years in advance of the book, he was already known for his demonstrations of countershading, in which he made wooden ducks less visible (or, short of that, potatoes) by painting their undersides lighter. He said that this accounted for the survival value of “the white undersides of animals.”

Another artist on the list was J. Alden Weir (1852-1919), pictured above, a prominent American painter of the same generation as Thayer. Both had been students of Jean-Léon Gerome at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and both were closely acquainted with John Singer Sargent. Weir was one of the founders of a group of American Impressionist painters known as The Ten, although he was the only one listed among the advocates of camouflage.

In the Norwich Bulletin (Norwich CT), dated July 30, 1917, a brief note was published that said: “Among famous American artists who have volunteered to teach soldiers abroad the new art of war disguise, camouflage, is J. Alden Weir, whose summer home is at Windham [CT].” He also had another home at Wilton CT, which has been preserved as the Weir Farm National Historic Site.

Another, longer news article that mentions Weir’s interest in camouflage was published a year later, on June 18, 1918, in the Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton NY). The headline reads: Hold Camouflage Is Not Entirely Military Service. Visiting Artists Declare Painters’ Craft Is Equally Responsible for Changing Objects to Fool Enemy Successfully; Laud Weir as Pioneer.

The article describes a conversation between a local news reporter and two American artists, who, while passing through Binghamton, were staying at the Arlington Hotel. One of the artists was Alexis Jean Fournier (1865-1948), a painter, originally from St Cloud MN, who had earlier become known as the resident “court painter” at Elbert Hubbard’s Arts and Crafts artists community, called Roycroft, in East Aurora NY. As a twenty-year-old, he had been a student of Douglas Volk, who, in 1886, was among the founders of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and, when WWI began, an advocate of camouflage. It is of passing interest to note that Volk was named after his mother’s cousin, Stephen A. Douglas, the presidential campaign rival of Abraham Lincoln, and that, in 1860, the four-year-old Volk was present in the studio when his father, the sculptor Leonard Volk, made plaster casts of the face and hands of Lincoln as a congressman.

Cast of Lincoln's Hands by Leonard Volk (1860)

The second artist who took part in the newspaper conversation was an artist-photographer from Detroit named Frank Scott Clark (1865-1937). He was originally from Peru IN (as was songwriter Cole Porter)  on the Wabash River, which is also, as the article notes, “near the home of General Lew Wallace,” the Civil War Union general who wrote the novel Ben Hur.

The artists in the interview were only somewhat younger than J. Alden Weir, and, in their observations about camouflage, they seem determined to credit him with its adoption during the war. Mr. Fournier, according to the article, “stated that the idea of camouflage was first illustrated to military men in London by the painter J. Alden Weir, who used a potato to show the effect of painting out shadows and changing the appearance of an object.”

In truth, it was Abbott Thayer (not J. Alden Weir) who had been demonstrating countershading to American and European naturalists since the 1890s, as confirmed by publications then. And Thayer had traveled to Europe to share this and other techniques to British scientists and the military before the Americans entered the war. “The military experts laughed at Weir,” Fournier insists (when, in fact, they lampooned Thayer), “but the painter went to France where some of his ideas were successfully carried out, and when he returned to London they were put into use by the English army.”

Like Thayer and Weir, Fournier had studied in Paris, and at some point in the interview, the subject of how American artists survived in the Latin Quarter was brought up. Among the things that artists learned while living in Paris, it was noted, was “the art of going without meals.” The discussion turned to stories about a particular artist named Charles Augustus Lasar (1856-1936), a former blacksmith from Johnstown PA, better known as “Shorty” Lasar. This was not far off-topic, because Lasar’s survival tactics “revealed knowledge of camouflage of a lighter but no less interesting” kind. As proof, they provided these details—

When his [Shorty Lasar’s] shirt sleeves became ragged, he would cut off the edges…After so many cuttings that the sleeves reached the elbows only, Lasar, when it was necessary to make a respectable appearance, would punch a hole in his one pair of celluloid cuffs and attach them with strings to the edge of his shirt sleeves. When his necktie was worn threadbare, this unique artist painted a tie on his shirt front, and when his teeth had cavities he filled them with tinfoil…

Regarding Shorty Lasar, there is a note on The Athenaeum website, in which American artist Cecilia Beaux (who, incidentally, was a friend of Abbott Thayer) describes Lasar as "a funny little man with intensely bright eyes and dark hair, standing around—and his legs about two feet long."