The art of war

June 26, 2009

Artists serving in the French Army were pioneers in new camouflage techniques and the first to have a camouflaged unit. Fine artists, house painters, carpenters, and plasterers came readily out of the trenches with their brushes and hammers and got busy making inked vests, multi-coloured helmets, camouflage nets for bridges and fake train tracks. And these ‘death defying’ units did it all by hand.

The art of illusion

The influence of Cubist techniques is apparent in early camouflage schemes. Upon observing a camouflaged canon, Picasso once exclaimed: “It is we who created that!” Altering the appearances of objects with patterns and colour was the method that even led to ‘floating art museums’: to confuse the enemy as to their exact direction and speed, ships were painted in vibrant colours and geometric shapes – many were created by women at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Trickery became both a tactic for defence and also for attack: papier mâché heads on the edges of trenches helped flush out snipers too quick in attacking the target. Fake paratroopers fell from the sky, fake trees served as observation or shooting posts, fake tanks, even fake armies – artists and artisans were willing to create short-lived ‘works’ that would perish in battle.

From field to fashion

Camouflage has become the norm: every ground soldier has to adapt to his surrounding decor. By the time of the Vietnam War, both returning veterans and civilians began wearing camouflage uniforms to protest against the war. The stage had been set for an important and indelible entry into pop culture.

In 1986, Andy Warhol transformed the ‘Woodland’ pattern into a veritable work of art: he modified its dimension, form, and of course its colours to create a famous series of silkscreens. Camouflage patterns are still popular today. Just look at the garments of major designers like Dior, Gaultier, or Castelbajac; never mind the skateboards, Christmas ornaments, rubber ducks, table napkins …

And so it comes full circle: the art re-appropriates itself.