How do you tell the story of camouflage? David Bernstein craves better examples of disguise in action than those on offer at the Imperial War Museum
The Camouflage exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum (until 18 November) is worth an hour of a designer’s time. Not that its design is exceptional. The art is that of deception, and too often it chooses to state rather than demonstrate. For instance, the entrance is easy to find, not hidden or resembling something else, but conventional. And many examples of camouflage are conventionally described rather than shown in action. I craved for a striking trompe l’oeil.
The visitor is confronted with four verbs – ‘conceal, distort, deceive, advertise’. They map the course, but what’s the end one doing there? Surely the last skill a camoufleur needs is to announce his presence.
Though combatants in earlier wars, from the Trojan to the Boer, had disguised themselves and tricked the enemy, camouflage did not become a military discipline until 1914, initially in the hands of the French. Their word camoufleur meant ‘makeup for the stage’. I wondered what a commercial artist felt like being recruited as a camoufleur. How did they unlearn? How did poster artists, who grabbed attention by making their designs jump out from their surroundings, settle down to doing the exact opposite?
Their new task was to merge subject with background, changing its colour, outline, texture, pattern – any or all. Primarily, as a caption informs us, ‘irregularity is what the camoufleur should seek at all times’. The familiar human form had to be deformed. What better way than to harness the devices of the Cubists? But if Georges Braque was one influence, Mother Nature was another. British scientists were to the fore with their research into the protective coloration of animals. We see examples of concealment (and it is no surprise that the society of camoufleurs chose as their symbol the chameleon) and mimicry.
But what if you could neither conceal nor mimic? Could you distort? Merchant ships were hard to camouflage. Some were painted with ‘dazzle’, large strips, first of silver, then multicoloured, to change their appearance. Dazzle was adopted by the bright young things after World War I – so we’re shown photographs of the dazzle-themed Chelsea Arts Ball of 1919.
World War II features more prominently in the next section, Deception, with fake troops, equipment, airfields, factories, even towns, especially in the build-up to D-Day. Less well-known is the Starfish, a decoy fire that was ignited during raids on Britain to direct German bombers away from their targets.
And so to the last section, Advertise, which displays clothes, fashion items and artefacts that adopt or adapt camouflage designs. It feels like an addendum, especially as the patterns, with few exceptions, rather than merging with their surroundings, stand out from them. Even one of the exceptions, a man’s two-piece suit in a brickwork pattern, works as camouflage only when seen against an identically patterned wall.
The exhibition’s promotional motif features a camouflaged army boot and a pink, camouflage-pattern, high-heeled shoe. It could be captioned ‘cold feet’, since I suspect the museum was afraid that military camouflage wasn’t enough of a draw. Pity. As an adman I am wary of a dual strategy: focus is all. And as an intrigued spectator, I felt that there was yet more of the real story to be told – and demonstrated, to boot.