According to Romy Golan, writing of the avant-garde artists who served on the battlefield in Modernity and Nostalgia: Art and Politics in France Between the Wars: “Some, like Dunoyer de Segonzac and Hebin, were drafted into the new camouflage sections; although camouflage was considered a paramilitary task, they often operated directly in the combat zone. Others were assigned to the infantry or to the artillery. La Fresnaye served in the 5th Regiment of the infantry, then sergeant. Toward the end of the war, he suffered a severe lung hemorrhage while in the trenches and had to be evacuated to a base hospital in the city of Tours. Metzinger was drafted into the army as a medical orderly and stationed at Saint-Ménéhould near Verdun in 1915 before being invalided out of service later that year. Derain fought at the Somme, Verdun, and the Vosages. Vlaminck, mobilized in the infantry reserve in 1914, did most of his service in a factory in Puteaux and in the aviation center of Le Bourget. Such wartime service would later play a role in uncovering the patriotism of those artists involved, thereby implicitly validating their art as well.” The author also quoted Félix Vallotton, who was too old to serve in the Great War, as saying, “Derain did not make one sketch on the front. Not a single one. He waged war. He did not make use of his artistic profession during the war. He practiced the profession of warrior. He slept in the mud.” Despite the French artists rather desultory reaction to the Great War, the avant-garde movement of Cubism is often and incorrectly credited with the invention of camouflage as an art form. 

Despite legends to the contrary, camouflage did not come directly from Cubism and the British camoufleur Solomon R. Solomon (1860-1927), separated himself from the avant-garde in his 1920 book, Strategic Camouflage, and the Royal Navy held an official inquiry to disentangle itself from claims that the radical style of Vorticism had inspired dazzle camouflage. However, the connections among art, design, and wartime camouflage were many. Like Picasso, Solomon R. Solomon understood that the art of camouflage was the art of breaking up the outlines. Camouflage, then, was an agent of disruption and dis-representation, attempting trompe l’oeil as disguise to foil the human eye and the camera lens. In addition to the huge canvases painted like forests to conceal everything from machine guns to villages to trenches, the artists also created fake walls, fake mills or chimneys to conceal telephone towers and observation posts. As Solomon said, “The noblest figure for us was a soldier in full kit covered in the sacred mud of Flanders or the Somme. But on the other side of the line, the scenic artist had raised, like a canopy, acres of picturesque landscape.”

Cabinet makers and scene painters, architects and plaster workers, skilled laborers in the trades, all participated in stage designing the war. The imaginative American military set up theaters of destruction for snipers, who could conceal themselves within faked animal carcasses, surrounded by the ruins of a faked explosion. The result this assemblage of painting, sculpture and theatrical design was a combination of avant-garde techniques that shifted and confused vision and Hollywood spectacle. 

The actual historical source of camouflage deployed officially by the French came not from the ranks of the radical artists but from an academic artist, Lucien Guirand de Scevola (1871-1950), who thought that the big French guns should be concealed under a tarp or canvas painted to match the landscapes seen from airplanes. He founded and headed up the first camouflage unit, the Section Camouflage, which eventually employed some 3800 artists, including some Cubists. He noted that “In order to deform totally the aspect of an object, I had to employ the means that cubists use to represent it.” As Jean Pauhan, a literary critic, remarked, “The only paintings that public opinion stubbornly condemned for looking like nothing were, in this time of danger, the only ones which could thus look like anything at all.” The new tanks, painted vert armée, were quickly camouflaged in strongly colored patterns, called “zébrage.” 

In his book, French Tanks of World War I, Steven J. Zaloga commented briefly on camouflage, noting that zébrage, better known as dazzle painting in Britain. First applied to artillery and later to tanks, the camouflage was intended to confuse the viewer regarding the actual shapes and details of the object more than to blend it into the background. The early camouflage schemes tended to be quite intricate and fussy, involving multiple paint colors which required considerable skill to apply. By late 1917, this gave way to simpler patterns that could be applied by minimally skilled workers in factories or depots. Studies conducted by the air force in 1917 led to the abandonment of the pre-war artillery gray color as it was found to be too evident on aerial photographs. The preferred color was a dull, dark green-brown, the precursor of the olive drab and olive green shades so widely used every since on tanks.”

Large expanses of netting studded with colored patches of canvas were swung over gun emplacements to hide the static targets from the airplanes or zeppelins, which were capable of strafing and bombing respectively. These flat-top nets were designed to be heavy with fabric or colored raffia in the middle and then the patches became more random towards the edges, producing a “natural” shading of dark and light which broke up the outer perimeter. Pablo Picasso recognized camouflage as an outcome of Cubism because he understood that once the form was broken up, once its outlines were obscured, the form itself became impossible to recognize and identify. The pre-war movement of Cubism, as co-authored by Picasso and his partner, Georges Braque, was divided after the War by painter Joan Gris into two phases, Analytic and Synthetic. The Synthetic phase consisted of collage, construction and assemblage and had few repercussions until the 1950s, but Analytic Cubism, a painting phase destroyed the object in favor of creating a semiotic system of “reading” a visual “code” which indicated an “experience” over space and time. The natural result of such a concept–that a single object is seen and viewed from many perspectives–is the disappearance of a coherent image, which has been fragmented in the name of a multi-dimensional understanding.  

Not surprising, it was in fact the French who set up the first camouflage unit composed of artists, some of whom were Picasso’s colleagues, called the “Salon Cubists,” who were more conservative than Picasso. The artist, from neutral Spain,  was exempt from service but was concerned about his friends at the Front, including the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. An expatriate living in Paris, Apollinaire was a Polish national, who patriotically served in the French army. Knowing that the French equipment was painted gris artillerie, Picasso informed the poet in 1915 that if French guns were “Harlequinized” rather than being painted gray, they would lose their distinctive cannon forms and become lost in a haze of colored shapelessness. His artistic colleagues would have completely understood the concept behind camouflage. 

Picasso was quick off the mark, for this new concern about concealment was connected to aerial reconnaissance, the first military use of the airplane, which would fly over the trenches and photograph the enemy lines, leading to a surge in developing aerial photography. Suddenly, artillery and military units once concealed because they were positioned a long distance from the enemy were now visible to the all-seeing camera mounted on an airplane, which observed, photographed, and reported everything. What Picasso knew was that pattern could conceal revealing outlines and distort distinctive shapes. According to Peter Forbes in his book, Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage, “The big innovations of the First World War over earlier wars were the machine gun, the aeroplane and the tank, and these innovations had consequences for camouflage. The aeroplane was the most important. Right from the start, aeroplanes were used for reconnaissance as well as for fighting. The need to hide large concentrations of troops and equipment from the spy in the sky became urgent. And the machine gun pinned down large formations in trench warfare, leading to such fascinating deceptions as the dummy tree look-out posts, and rows of wire-manipulated puppet ‘Chinese’ troops. Camouflage in the First World War essentially meant concealing equipment rather than formations of troops. Of course, the idea of making soldiers invisible was an attractive one, but disguising a single sniper was much more likely to be productive than decking out a whole army in camouflage. There are several reasons. Snipers rely absolutely on concealment, whereas regular troops depend more on firepower. The sniper’s art derives from hunting, in which camouflage has often been used in stalking animals. And mass producing camouflage uniforms was not easy technically. Sniper suits could be, and were, handmade.”

In fact, the first camouflage was both painted and made by hand, by artists and by anyone who could understand the idea of concealment by fragmentation. But, over time, it became possible to mass manufacture fabric with a camouflage pattern printed on it. A case in point is the airplane. We rarely think of airplanes in the Great War being covered in a camouflage pattern but in fact even in the sky it was necessary to break up the form. A Swiss artist, Paul Klee (1879-1940) who, loyal to his adopted country, served with the German army in the section of the camouflage unit that specialized in airplanes. This is a rather obscure part of the young artist’s career as his war service was wedged between his time with the Blue Rider in Murnau before the War and at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau after the War. But in a small and informative article, historian Andrew King wrote “The Flying Canvases of Paul Klee” in October of 2014. King traced the practice of painting on airplanes during the Great War by noting that it was the French which first put national markings on the plane to prevent being shot down by their own guns. These recognizable insignia were followed by efforts at camouflage, also pioneered by the French. They tried silver dope which was applied to prevent the canvas from rotting in the sunlight, and then the French tried hand painting the fabric in greens and browns as if it were in a forest. The Germans followed suit with an assortment of color schemes, from olive green to turquoise to purple. After completing basic training, Paul Klee was transferred to an aircraft maintenance company in Oberschleissheim in August of 1916. Aircraft needed to be restored and repainted in the array of particolored lozenges or diamond shapes. This pattern was supplanted by a design possibly inspired by pointillism, applied in hand-painted polygons. One of the artists working at a different air field in Idflieg, a certain, Lieutenant Reimschneider, became, according to King, “the originator of two particular types of flugzeug tarnstoff, known in English as five colour day and night lozenge patterns, not the concept of printing all such patterns). By 1918, Halberstädter Flugzeug Werke’s textile mills were covering most of the Kaiser’s military aircraft with pointillism-inspired camouflage fabric, printed with repeating abstract patterns, made up of irregular polygons or regular hexagons.” Once it was possible to mass produce the camouflage patterns, Paul Klee was no longer needed to do the hand painting, but the impact of the repetitive designs he placed on airplanes can be seen in his post-war paintings, an influence that continued for the rest of his life as an artist. 

Another artist, an American infantryman, Homer Saint-Gaudens, the son of the famous sculptor, Augustus Saing-Gaudens, arrived in France in 1918 as an lowly infantryman with the American Expeditionary Forces. In her book on camouflage, Hanna Rose Shell told an interesting story about this artist’s contribution to the art of concealment. It was winter and there was a shortage of blankets to keep the troops warm and, not incidentally, to hide those in the trenches from aerial reconnaissance. As often happens in wartime there were shortages when the raw materials, recycled wools from England and America, ran out in January of 1918. A member of the Fortieth Engineers, Saint-Gaudens arrived in Dijon and suggested recycling “old newspring, discarded letters, war bulletins, and bound volumes whose spines had worn out into camouflage material. Run through the press-and-dye works, shredded paper would reemerge as thick sheets of woven material in environmentally coordinated shades of gray, green, and brown. Effectively deployed, the camouflage material produced by Saint-Gaudens’ book-devouring machine could make people–soldiers or civilians—disappear into photographs..As Scientific American reported in the spring of 1918, the blankets of camouflage material were ‘tinted like the surrounding grass and used as a cover for the bodies of men going up to the front.’ Infantrymen had been supplied a textile skin. In an almost preternatural process of replicating the landscape, the ‘materia;’as the troops called it, was grafted onto observation posts, artillery factories, trench parapets, and gun batteries. From printed paper grew a second nature.” 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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