Friday, November 11, 2005

Camouflage survey

It all started with a great score from Daedalus, a book I’ve been looking for for some time: designer Hardy Blechman’s Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopedia Of Camouflage (Firefly, 2004—it had previously been available only under a British imprint) for a cool $30—go and check it out at the source, or see Steven Heller’s review in Eye, or the one in Boldtype.

And then, in rapid succession: a BB post on dazzle camouflage, followed by a call for papers for the upcoming Camouflage: Art, Science and Popular Culture, to be held at the University of Northern Iowa Department of Art on Saturday, 22 April 2006. (The conference is organized by Roy R. Behrens, whose False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage—Bobolink, 2002—is the wonky yang to Blechman’s stylish yin; proposals are due by 10 January 2006.)

dazzle Fiat Strada
A dazzly paint-job.

Some snips: in 1917, at the height of the U-boat scare during WWI, a former marine artist, designer, and illustrator—one Lt. Cdr. Norman Wilkinson of the Royal Navy—was assigned to a team tasked with visually altering British ships to improve maritime survivability. Interestingly, dazzle (as it came to be known) did not operate as conventional camouflage—which typically masks a body’s visibility—usually does: dazzle creates a vibrating visual field which makes it difficult for a human observer to accurately determine the position and heading of a potential target, crucial inputs for a successful torpedo-er (prior to the age of radar, sonar, and computerized navigation). Wilkinson’s band tested candidates by painting models and testing their effectiveness by rigging a turntable, water, and periscope optics. (The U.S. and France would follow suit, usually employing fine artists in the endeavor.)

DPM is a rich visual sourcebook, one that gets you heading in all sorts of fruitful directions: it covers camouflage in the natural world, in warfare (of course), but also provides fashion and pop images that serve as great fodder for free-association. Me? I’ve been pondering the morphing of camo from utilitarian to semiotic signal of the military, patriotism, and plainspeaking Americanism (in our fair city, football fans have adopted the uniform, with a bit of tailoring). And in the Costume Institute’s Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed (from 2001), one thread concerned the utility of fashion in hiding unflattering body parts.

For the scholars: a camouflage bibliography, courtesy of Behrens.

Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo
Eva Green as Venus de Milo
Eva Green in
The Dreamers

Addendum: From a scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s awkward and forced Dreamers, actress Eva Green is depicted as the Venus de Milo when she camouflages her arms by wearing long black gloves and standing in a dark doorway, dressed only in drapery surrounding the hips. [cws::13 Nov]

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