The History of Visual Warfare and The Cubist’s contribution to camouflage

Lee Miller and Roland Penrose Part 1. By Neal Von Flue


By the turn of the 20th century, most soldiers wore a dull and uniform color.

Pants, shirt, jackets, covers and helmets, each country in a matte color of their own, ranging from gray to brown to blue. In India, the British wore what they dubbed Khaki, adopting the Urdu word for “dust covered.” Warfare was changing, and color was becoming a liability.

However, at the outbreak of World War I, the French were still outfitting each soldier with blue jackets and bright red pants, with a matching soft hat.

Their casualties were devastating so they quickly changed their regulation field dress to a middle-value blue.

And then with the help of modern art, the French changed war forever.

“Camouflage can be thought of as visual warfare.”

Julian Otto Trevelyan

The word Camouflage began as slang amongst French thieves, derived from an Italian word meaning “to deceive” perhaps in association with the French word Camouflet meaning “whiff of smoke in the face.”

Art historian Elizabeth Louise Kahn wrote about the moniker:

“…the very term camouflage held a devious and unseedy [sic] meaning for French readers of popular literature…it was a word used to describe evil criminals who lurked about city streets and hid themselves from the police”

Despite the popular definition of the word, the French Army made the first unit devoted to camouflage creation in 1915. They were called “Camoufleurs” and to designate themselves from regular soldiers they wore a red and white armband with a silver chameleon embroidered on it.

The idea of a unit dedicated to camouflage invention spread quickly, and within a few years every country had Camoufleur units who were devising a great many new (and occasionally zany) ideas for concealment. And they were painting everything they could find: artillery, tanks, trucks, ships, and people.

The Waterloo Times-Tribune in Indiana ran this editorial in June of 1918:

The “Camouflage” section of our army has been developed until it is now a most important adjunct. We need men who can create costumes that will make soldiers look like straw stacks; snipers look like old tree trunks; and railroad trains like babbling brooks…The other day I met a famous American sculptor dressed in the uniform of an American private. “I’ve joined the camouflage section,” he laughed. “…it was about time I turned my talents to the good of my country. I put in my days making odd things that will fool the Germans. The easiest things to make with clay and plaster are huge shells that, when properly painted and treated with substances resembling moss, will look like old rocks embedded in the hillsides. Our snipers can get inside and spot German heads when they show over the tops of their trenches.”…

Camoufleurs created the observation tree; a painstakingly-sculpted duplicate of a war-torn tree on the battlefield. In the night, the soldiers would sneak out and cut down the real tree and replace it with the fortified fake. Come morning, the enemy would be none-the-wiser that this stump now held a reconnaissance soldier (or a sniper).

And there was Abbott Thayer’s countershading theory, derived from the observation of animal coloring. Thayer thought that lightening the areas of an object that would be in shadow would counteract the ability to see it’s volume. And as this image attests, it seemed nothing short of miraculous in proper observation:

This is a photograph by Thayer of TWO duck models. The one on the left has been camouflaged and the one on the right has been camouflaged and countershaded. You can see the faintest hint of the wire holding up the duck on the right, but that’s it. It seems impossible, but he was said to have repeated this experiment many times in front of people. Unfortunately, Thayer’s theory of countershading was considered less effective in the field and was eventually dumped, though it found some longevity in air warfare.

And there was also Dazzle Camouflage; bold and unnatural, and anything but concealing. However it’s purpose wasn’t to make a ship invisible on the water, as that would be impossible. It’s purpose was to make it difficult to determine the speed, direction and size of the ship to it’s deadliest predators: German submarines.

And so, in all of this creation and experimentation, a new way to think about concealment was created. The goal became larger than finding the best way to blend into an environment. It was also now about disruption and confusion. Visual trickery and optical illusions were proving successful in confounding the enemy, which in turn decreased his chances at proper judgement and deadly aim. They found usefulness in designs and patterns that would break up the outline and surfaces of a man, a gun, a tank, a truck, when viewed from the air, land or sea.

And who better in the first half of the 20th century to tackle the topic of breaking up man-made forms than the Cubists, the Vorticists, and the Surrealists.

In order to deform totally the aspect of the object, I had to employ the means that cubists use to represent it.

Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola

De Scévola was known for his gentle pastel work and society portraits before the war. But in 1914 as a second class gunner, he experimentally covered a gun emplacement with a painted canvas screen. Within a year he was the first leader of the newly formed French Camoufleur Unit. By 1917 he was in charge of over 3000 artists, house painters, sculptors and more, who were working daily to mystify and confound the vision of the enemy.

In his art, De Scévola was a Symbolist- a late 19th century art school which had a foundation of representation and narrative art- and he disliked the avant garde, especially Cubism. But he understood the ideas behind it and thought that it’s real contribution lay outside of the picture plane. They named this first wave of patterns “Disruptive Camouflage” and it sought to do what modern art of the time did; break up form by devaluing it’s planes and surfaces:

And when these abstract theories made for the picture plane were put into practice in the real world, they didn’t go unnoticed by their creators:

I very well remember at the beginning of the war being with Picasso on the boulevard Raspail when the first camouflaged truck passed. It was at night, we had heard of camouflage but we had not seen it and Picasso amazed, looked at it and then cried out ‘Yes, it is we who made it, that is cubism!’

-Gertrude Stein

The list of artists who were Camoufleurs during both World Wars include some incredibly well-known names in modern art at the time: Jacques Villon, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Solomon Joseph Solomon, Leon Underwood, Edward Seago, Allen Sorrel. And one of the most important figures in the recognition and preservation of cubism, Roland Penrose.

Roland Penrose was considered a surrealist, but his contributions to the world were much more diverse, profound and more enduring than the things he made with his own hands.

He was raised in England as a Quaker and was registered as a conscientious objector when World War I started. He opted to join the Friends’ Ambulance Service, a Quaker organization which sent him to serve with the Red Cross in Italy. He went to college after the war, and moved to France to study painting in 1922. He met and married Valentine Boué, a poet who was his entry to the surrealist movement.

Penrose found himself at the center of an explosive time in art and culture, and he did a great deal to shine a light on it. In 1936 he helped organize the first exhibit of Surrealist art in London. His marriage to Valentine fell apart and he opened a gallery devoted to selling Surrealism, tirelessly promoting the movement while making his own work.

He was a close friend of Pablo Picasso and arranged an English tour of Guernica in 1938, with proceeds going to the Spanish rebels. In some cities the exhibition stayed open until 8pm to give the poor and working people time to see it, and the price of admission for them was as little as a used pair of boots.

Around this time, he met and married model and photographer Lee Miller. He wrote a biography on Picasso and published other books about their colleagues and friends including Max Ernst, Man Ray, Joan Miró and more.

And, he literally wrote the book on Camouflage for World War II:

Because of his interest in camouflage theories, Penrose was commissioned as a Captain in the Royal Engineers. During the war, he was influential in providing safe passage out of Europe and procuring work for artists, including the German multi-media artist Kurt Schwitters and Salvador Dalí.

And for the war effort, he lectured on camouflage techniques. It’s reported that- in order to illustrate the importance and effectiveness of camouflage- his lecture included a slide of his wife Lee Miller, naked under a camouflage netting.

And he would quip:

“If camouflage can hide Lee’s charms, it can hide anything.”

And if you don’t know who Lee Miller is, that might seem bold or possibly sexist. But believe me, Lee Miller doesn’t need our help.

Read Part 2 of this essay here.


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