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.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

As human folly brings about yet another catastrophe

Above Cover of Ballast Quarterly Review. Vol 8 No 1 (Autumn 1992), featuring a wood engraving by British printmaker Robert Gibbings, titled Fowey Habor (c1919).  All issues of Ballast (a periodical commonplace book that ran for twenty-one years) are now available online as pdf downloads.


Robert Gibbings, Sweet Thames Run Softly. NYC: E.P. Dutton, 1945—

The war [WWII] broke out, but I was overage. Besides, I had met a bullet in the last war. I tried for camouflage. I offered to make drawings from submarines, having already worked underwater in a diving helmet…if it was human folly which had brought about the catastrophe, it was, for the most part, only human beings who were paying the price. The world of nature was unaffected; flowers still bloomed, birds still sang, even butterflies continued their migrations, and rivers flowed towards the sea.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Paul Bartlett and the American Camouflage Division

Above Paul Wayland Bartlett in 1918 in Washington DC. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. Digital coloring.


In a blog post on Frank Overton Colbert in 2018, we mentioned his connection with a widely known Beaux-Arts American painter and sculptor named Paul Wayland Bartlett. In April 1917, Bartlett co-founded a group of Washington DC artists called the American Camouflage Division.

Bartlett was the group’s chairman, while among the other members were Felix Mahony, Michel Jacobs, Glen Brown, Richard Brooks, A.G. Smith, Alexis B. Many, and J. Crozier. When the US entered World War I, this group offered to contribute their expertise in the development of camouflage. At the same time, comparable groups had also been formed in New York City (called the New York Camouflage Society or American Camouflage) and San Francisco (American Camouflage Western Division).

In an issue of The Sunday Star (Washington DC) on April 29, 1917 (Section Four, page 1), a half-page article titled WASHINGTON ARTISTS ORGANIZE A CAMOUFLAGE DIVISION reported that Bartlett had recently—

made an address before an assemblage of fellow artists, architects, sculptors, and painters to explain the possibilities of camouflage. His explanations were inspiring; so much so, in fact, that the establishment of an American association of camouflage was begun then and there.

Paul Wayland Bartlett (1865-1925) had been born in New Haven CT. He began with the advantage of professional connections, because his father was a prominent sculptor, Truman H. Bartlett (1835-1922), who taught modeling for 22 years in the MIT architecture department. Both the father and the son were heavily influenced by Neo-classicism and the French Academy, and, as early as age 15, Paul Bartlett began to study sculpture in Paris.

Throughout the remainder of his life, he remained active in American art circles, but lived primarily in France. In 1914, artists serving in the French Army were the first to propose the establishment of a section de camouflage, so Bartlett’s endorsement of the "art of camouflage" was most likely encouraged in part by that.

Bartlett was known for his commissioned public sculptures, the most notable of which may be The Apothesis of Democracy, the House of Representatives pediment at the US Capitol building (as shown below). He died of blood poisoning in Paris in 1925.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Veteran camoufleur sought for bootlegging expertise

Above Prohibition agents with a confiscated moonshine still. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.


CAMOUFLAGE USED TO COVER STILLS in Centralia Sentinel (Centralia IL), November 2, 1923, p. 2—

Montana prohibition officers are searching for a war veteran who saw service overseas in a camouflage outfit. According to [Montana law enforcement], bootleggers are believed to be employing the returned veteran to conceal their moonshine stills on Montana farms.

Costello said a still was recently discovered in a tent near Boseman MT after many weeks' search. The moonshine-making outfit had been hidden in a tent, painted green, and pitched in a clump of willows. Several times the dry officers came within a few feet of the hidden still but were unable to locate it because of the successful camouflage. A large number of barrels, hidden in the willows nearby, were painted green.

Three hundred gallons of whiskey, 1,244 pounds of sugar, 1,000 pounds of corn, and 15 barrels of mash, ready for distilling were found in the cache.

Evidence of the work of the veteran has been uncovered in other parts of the state, it was said. In a northern Montana grain field, a still was discovered hidden under a tent which was covered with bunches of grain, tied together, and ready for harvesting. For some days dry agents thought the disguised tent was a mound of grain.

Near Havre MT, a still was found on a mountain. The still was made of canvas and was located on the edge of a cliff. Painted to resemble rocks, it was many weeks before the moonshiners’ outfit was discovered.

At Great Falls a still was recently found on the banks of the Missouri River. Here the still was located in a cave. Painted canvas trees were used to disguise a door, which formed the entrance to the cave.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Olivette's mysteries | To be clasped to Flanders mud

The Mysterious Olivette (1918)
Above A photograph (with digital coloring) of The Mysterious Olivette, shown “dancing the Diablo Tarantella in the third act of The Lilac Domino at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool UK. Published in The Bystander on March 20, 1918, p. 609, the headline caption simply read Of Course it’s Camouflage!

And below is an excerpt from a column in the same issue, p. 594—

And what [for soldiers on leave if] there were no camouflage dances? For a camouflage dance, you know, is just exactly like other dances, only, for camouflage, there’s a gramophone instead of a band, and sandwiches instead of quail, and you wear, if possible, a “simple” frock, for you never quite know if someone almost straight from the trenches won’t arrive, and to be clasped close to Flanders mud in white tulle or rose-pink ninon is—well, in any case, rather nice, really.


And alas, one of our favorite old-timey comedy lines (an exchange between dancers)—

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m a little stiff from badminton.”

“I don’t care where you’re from. You’ll never dance with me again!”

The Bystander | Disguised to look like nothing at all

Above Rawley [or Hawley] Morgan, "Our Involuntary Disguises" cartoon in The Bystander, March 20, 1918, p. 613.


Anon, Hello Buddy: Sad and Sunny Side of War (1920)—

Of late the scene painter's art—technically known as camouflage—has raised the concealment of batteries and their observation posts to the realm of the uncanny…you can now disguise anybody as anything. For instance, you can make up a battery of six-inch guns to look [like] a flock of sheep, and herd them into action browsing. Or you can dispatch a scouting party across No Man's Land dressed up as pillboxes, so that the deluded Hun, instead of opening fire with a machine gun, will merely post letters in them—valuable letters, containing military secrets. Lastly, and more important still, you can disguise yourself to look like nothing at all, and in these days of intensified artillery fire it is very seldom that nothing at all is hit.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Thelma Cudlipp's satirical view of camouflage corps

American Women's Camouflage Corps (1918)
Above One of various US government photographs from World War I of the American Women’s Camouflage Corps. A few years ago, we curated and designed a public exhibition of this and other photographs from the same unit. All items from that exhibit can now be accessed online.

Below are the sketches and humorous captions by Thelma Cudlipp for a satirical treatment of the same subject from a 1918 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. The artist/author was the American illustrator Thelma Somerville Cudlipp (1891-1983), who, through marriages and family links, is also sometimes known as Thelma Somerville Grosvenor Cudlipp Whitman. Having led an undoubtedly interesting life, she merits looking into.


Thelma Cudlipp (sketches and text), "Camouflage! Oh, Where Have We Heard That Word Before?", from Vanity Fair, September 1918, p. 35—

ISN'T IT WONDERFUL how the very most fashionable women in America are helping to dethrone that whole darn Hohenzollern family? And isn’t it wonderful, too, to note the variety of activities in which their energies are beginning to count for the Allies? Take, for instance, the Women’s Camouflage Corps, of New York, which is doing such wonderful work up in the Bronx! Why, it really isn' t possible—because of the work of the corps there—to walk in the northern confines of our city without acknowledging the truth of the saying that "Things are not what they seem." It was obvious, from the beginning of the war, that the ladies would flock to the art of camouflage, as if drawn to it by some natural inherited instinct. For, is a woman—we ask you—ever as happy as when she is persuading us that when she offers us one thing, it is, in reality, another? And so, when the vogue of camouflage came along and gave the girls an opportunity to resort to their favorite occupation of dissembling, why, that's all there was to it. The incidents mirrored on this page are the results of recent and actual experiences on the part of Vanity Fair.

Here is a rather saddening incident. Private Phylisse Stuyvesant has, for a week or more, been annoying her sister members of the Camouflage Corps in a great variety of ways. All of the girls have been doing their best to “sit on her”—but so far, without success. Here, however. we see the snub actually accomplished—not by the girls, to be sure, but by a vagrant cook, who, with a strolling laundress, is out for a little alfresco picnic.

Horrid predicament of Lieutenant Corinne de Puyster, who is acting as guide and cicerone for a French General of note, who has graciously consented to visit the Ladies Camouflage Camp. Lieutenant de Puyster, determining, inwardly, to give Sergeant Esme Vanderbilt at least ten days in the guard-house for having camouflaged her Sherry's lunch basket so as to make it appear to be but an innocent and inoffensive bit of the parade ground.

And here is a really tragical incident, as a result of which Vanity Fair almost went without its accustomed liquid refreshment on its recent visit to the ladies' camp. The girls had camouflaged a case of Bevo [near beer] to look like a cross-section of a rocky pasture, with the distressing result that it took three privates in the ladies' corps upwards of twenty minutes to find the precious fluid. The discovery of it was only accomplished by implicit obedience of the terse orders: “Ladies! Forward on all fours.”

So many people are saying that Vanity Fair is an improper magazine—what with its troupes of barefoot dancers and its portraits of the girls in the Follies—that we hesitated a good deal before printing this rather questionable illustration, displaying, as it does, two gentlemen about to take a swim in the river Bronx, all unaware of the fact that Captain Gladys Astor is lurking, not more than five paces away, cleverly disguised as a stunted nut tree.

And this is what led to the very biggest scandal of all, a tragedy so tremendous that it led to the withdrawal of Major Muriel Van Rensselaer from the Camouflage Corps. The Major, disguised as a sassafras bush, was, all unwillingly, forced to overhear a lengthy, candid and snappy account of herself and all her activities—just exactly what all the girls really thought of her—from two horrid privates in her own company.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Frank Lloyd Wright | Taliesin West and Camouflage

Mason City poster © Roy R. Behrens
In the following text, the newspaper article referenced is “Architect Wright’s Arizona Home, Last Word in Camouflage, Blends into Landscape of Desert” in The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento CA), May 14, 1940.

In 1911. the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright established a studio near Spring Green, Wisconsin, on a property that had long been owned by his maternal Welsh ancestors, the Lloyd Jones family. He referred to that location as Taliesin, which is Welsh for “shining brow.”

Beginning in 1935, Wright no longer remained in Wisconsin year-round. Instead, he and his students traveled annually to the Southwest, to spend each winter in more compatible weather in a desert setting, twenty-six miles from Phoenix, Arizona. The complex he established there became known as Taliesin West.

In May of 1940, a newspaper article described Wright’s Taliesin West (still unfinished at the time) as the “last word in camouflage.” World War Two was underway (although the US was officially neutral), and the article recommended that “the artists of wartime camouflage could learn a lot from the sprawling, unusual structure” that Wright was then developing in Paradise Valley, near Scottsdale AZ.

Although Wright himself might not refer to his architecture as camouflage, the article goes on to say, it is nothing short of that, since “the building blends so completely with the desert landscape that it is scarcely visible a half-mile away.” Indeed, “were it not for the white canvas roof it would almost be lost in the rugged mountain topography at a distance.”

Proposed book cover (2016) not used

Cedar Rock talk about Wright and Modern-era furniture (2018)

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

To see or not? The compleat disguise of the nightjar

Above Scissor-tailed Nightjar (referred to in the article as the "goatsucker"). Public domain.


Below is most (not all) of the text from a magazine article that was published during World War I. An opening section, which is a disturbing and not-funny joke about the “West Indian negro” (but referred to by a slanderous name), has been omitted. Encountering such offensive content is standard fare when searching vintage published texts.

The author, Stephen Haweis (1878-1969), was a British artist and photographer whose family (described as “socially prominent”) lived in Cheyne Walk in London, in a house that had been previously owned by Dante Gabrielle Rossetti. While living in Paris, he was a student of Alphonse Mucha, and, as a photographer, documented the sculptural work of Auguste Rodin. He was also the sometime husband of British poet Mina Loy. After losing much of his family’s wealth in the 1929 stock market crash, he moved to the West Indies, where (according to a biographical note in the finding aid for his papers at Columbia University) “he studied and painted tropical fish [and] wrote for local newspapers…”

Stephen Haweis, "To See or Not To See? A Question that Camouflage, Color and Cubism Are Solving in the War" in Vanity Fair, April 1918, pp. 42ff—

… It was recently announced in the newspapers that ingenious camouflage men were required by the Chief of Engineers at Washington. Property men, photographers, sheet metal workers, scene and sign painters, were specified among a host of others, but there was no notice or mention of color experts, or men whose lives are devoted to the observation of Nature.

A really ingenious camouflage man ought to be able to do quite well without the simple wiles of the stage decorator, but it seems odd that the color men should be overlooked by such an important branch of the Army service as the camouflage department. Perhaps, at this moment, the most useless professions would seem to be those of the picture painter and the naturalist, but in these two branches of study are the real master camouflagers. The painter, because he devotes his life to the science of color, and the collecting naturalist because he could not possibly find the objects of his search were he not trained to notice the slightest variations of color and form, in forest and plain.

The naturalist can see the screech owl on the stump of an old tree, and can find the praying mantis upon a bush, which the rest of humanity will pass unnoticed; indeed a tyro may stare vacantly at a land-crab in a mangrove swamp for several minutes after its exact position has been indicated to him. I have seen a man kneel down upon the sand with his nose less than three feet from the young of the goatsucker, yet he could not see it, because to him sand and fluff were exactly alike.

We are not trained to accurate observation unless our life interest depends upon it. But who should be able to detect a hidden gun emplacement, or a sniper, so well as a painter or a naturalist? They know when a boulder has been recently moved by the direction of the lichen growths on it. They suspect an unusual shape of a branch in a mass of foliage. They are not easily deceived by cut trees that are supposed to be growing.

Biography of Mina Loy

The army authorities should take into consideration that there are several breeds of artists. The popular portrait painter might be dead weight in the camouflage department, and the old fashioned landscape man might be well supplanted by the scene-painter; but the impressionist, perhaps even the post-impressionist or the cubist, should be of the utmost value to them because they look at nature scientifically and analytically. They have no preconceived ideas of what a picture should be, they are concerned with what nature really is, however unlikely it may seem to the eye. They do not attempt to paint details, but effects of light upon scenes or objects which in themselves have no particular interest for them.

They are aware that the color of the thing at any given moment is incompletely interpreted by that color detached from its encircling environment of light, air, and movement. To attain this, the impressionist analyzes what he sees and devises a means of expressing the result of his analysis.

He does it as a rule by juxtaposing brilliant colors in spots and blotches so that the result expresses the colors, and suggests the details of his subjects properly in their relative values,—the keynote of successful camouflage.

Most people think that an object painted blue would be inconspicuous against a blue sky. Blue sky, however, is not blue paint, a paint which appears to darken with distance more rapidly than any other color,—so that a blue airplane would show up almost like a black spot in the sky.

Orange, on the other hand, (the complementary of blue), will disappear remarkably quickly, a pale vivid yellow would probably be found to be the best airplane color for a blue sky. Pink will disappear rapidly against white skies, while anyone who has seen a spot of vermilion on gray drawing paper, should realize that a vermilion airplane against a thunder cloud if visible at all, would be an impossible target, as the two colors produce a vibration in the eye that is almost intolerable. I do not doubt that artists could devise a far better color for uniforms than the favorite grays and browns dear to the military heart today.

Applied to battleships, the result of the prevalent gray color scheme is well nigh pathetic, for, upon the horizon, they appear perfectly well defined to the enemy marksman. He would have considerably more trouble if the color were a bright mauve. If there were enough red in the mauve, these ships, theoretically, should not be visible on the greens and grays of the ocean.

Already there are some who regret the old white battleships, which at least reflected the water. But white is now said to be a bad color. But there are different kinds of white; blue-white, green-white, yellow-white—each of which has its own characteristics and uses. Probably all white holds or refracts too much light to be very inconspicuous, except in a blaze of light.

The chief essential in camouflage is that the same color should not be employed all over anything. Spots have been used by the painters to simulate movement in picture painting. They will be found—on a large scale—to be right in principle for harmonizing an object with the continual movement of its surroundings.

But, whatever colors are employed the impressionist has long known that stars and stripes are the right principle—and I think we shall see that they will be placed, in Europe, where they will do a lot of good.