Unsung heroes

The Allies might have lost World War II if not for the unacknowldedged work of artists who helped to develop new forms of camouflage and military deception, but their contribution to victory is now finally being celebrated

You don’t see many Wag-wannabies in ersatz Manolos headed for the Imperial War Museum, but they might well be beating a path to its doors to see the museum’s latest show, Camouflage. For as any good fashionista knows, trends come and go, but the military/camouflage ‘look’ can be relied on to be on-trend at least once every three years. So it’s no surprise that the populist museum has decided to devote a share of this new exhibition to camouflage in culture – after all, it’s a subject that has had enduring appeal for both counter-culture and haute couture fans for the past 50 years.

But beyond the frivolity of fashion, there’s a genuinely fascinating and important exhibition here, one whose focus is, as IWM historian and exhibition curator James Taylor puts it, firmly on ‘the 20th century as the high point of visual deception, in particular the revolution in perception and detection techniques that happened during World War I, and the role that artists and creatives played in this revolution’. He describes this revolution as ‘art combating science, a point when the artists who went to war transposed their knowledge and understanding of perception, colour, shape and form and applied them to camouflage and deception techniques to create an invaluable part of the war effort’.

The sheer amount of material available to Taylor, not just in the museum’s own collection but worldwide, made its display a daunting prospect, but once he decided on the 20th century focus, the conceptual layout of the exhibition, designed by Casson Mann, fell into place. Four themes deal with different aspects of camouflage – concealment, distortion, deception and advertisement – and rather than simply reconstruct the accompanying Thames & Hudson book Camouflage as ‘a book on the wall’, Taylor and Casson Mann have created a display that aims to overwhelm through its ‘physicality and three-dimensional impact’, says Taylor.

There are certainly some stunning pieces on show. Like the very first, hand-painted, disruptive-pattern uniforms created by French camoufleurs such as Eugene Corbin. There are also the life-like dummy heads created by sculptor Henry Bouchard, wooden model ships displaying the ‘dazzle’ patterns devised by marine painter Norman Wilkinson to mask the speed and course of a ship, observation posts disguised as trees, and a wealth of artists’ work from World War II, including zoologist Hugh Cott’s engrossing work in adaptive colouration. Here, too, are works by architect Hugh Casson, advertising designer Ashley Havinden and Surrealist painter Roland Penrose, who used stunning photos of a camouflaged Lee Miller to liven up lectures on camouflage to the British Home Guard.

The relationship between Cubism and camouflage is also covered in detail here, as are the many colour and form theories that artists brought into play in the deception and concealment of everything from soldiers to buildings, water coolers, airstrips and vehicles. In this sense, the exhibition promises to pay homage to creative artists in a formerly unexplored way – we’re all familiar with visual and literary art as an expression of war, but the important part artists physically played in the war effort is one that will be new to many. Yet, as Taylor points out, the efforts of these men were difficult on unexpected levels. ‘For a lot of them, applying peacetime skills to the art of war was very difficult; they had to overcome a lot of prejudice towards modern art to be able to work as best as they could in this area,’ he says. And he suggests that in certain engagements, such as the D-Day landings, their contributions were absolutely vital, because, ‘without these creatives – everyone from Vorticist artists and film set designers to scene painters, sculptors and Surrealist painters – the war may not have been won by the Allies’. A sobering thought for the Wag-wannabies coming to pore over Philip Treacy’s camouflage shoes for Gina Couture.

Camouflage runs from 23 March to 18 November at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1
Camouflage, by Tim Newark with an introduction by Jonathan Miller, is published by Thames & Hudson in association with the Imperial War Museum, priced £24.95

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