"We invented that," Picasso remarked to Gertrude Stein on first seeing painted camouflage patterns in 1915. Camouflage, from a French word meaning "to obscure with smoke," became an organized human activity in response to technological advances in WWI. Torpedoes from German submarines were so successful they had created a climate for radical and novel counter measures.
That the giant camouflage patterns applied to thousands of Allied ships resemble modern painting isn't surprising, since in many ways the problems facing the painter and the camoufleur were the same, but in reverse. Just as Cubism, for instance, sought to reveal objects by breaking down their colors and forms, so camouflage sought to conceal the identities of ships, trucks, and even men, with patterns of disruptive multiple contrasts.
Called "dazzle" ships for thier optical effects, the painted vessels were extremely successful in confusing submarine operators as to course, speed, size, and type of ship, and thus in evading torpedoes. The dazzle patterns inspired scaled down terrestrial versions for everything from tanks to helmets. Such patterns often emulated the large naval designs without real understanding.
In this period many assimilative, or blending patterns, were also developed for land situations. Military experts now agree that such small scale patterns have very limited effectiveness, and then only when stationary. Thus patterned clothing and helmets, in particular, have always served a largely psychological, or morale purpose.
Aircraft, long range optics, and the close proximity of opposing trenches made dummies an important part of camouflage in WWI. Their success spurred further developments during WWII, including full size inflatable rubber tanks and trucks, and hundreds of three foot plastic figures dropped by individual parachute before the Normandy invasion.
The nature of military activity precludes, in most cases, tracing the authorship of camouflage designs, thus, unless otherwise noted, all designers are anonymous. The following artists, however, are known to have served in units specifically charged with camouflage work: Jean-Louis Boussingault, Charles Camoin, Charles Dufresne, Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac, and Jacques Villon (France, WWI); SIr John Graham Kerr, Edward Wadsworth, and Norman Wilkinson (Great Britain, WWI); Dwight Bridge, Wilford Conrow, Barry Faulkner, Everett Herter, Bernard Hoyt, Richard Marryman, and the architect Everett Tracy (U.S., WWI); Arshile Gorky and Ellsworth Kelly (U.S., WWII); Homer St. Gaudens headed an American camouflage unit in both World Wars.
All works are from the collection of John Lovell.