A Chronology of Camouflage:

             A Pastiche in a Bouillabaisse






Above self-portrait stamp by Roy R. Behrens (2006) 


Opening remarks and camouflage poem at the same conference, by Marvin Bell


An introductory address by Roy R. Behrens at the international camouflage conference, on Saturday, April 22, 2006, at the University of Northern Iowa


Copyright © by Roy R. Behrens

IN A PREHISTORIC cave painting, there is a drawing of a man disguised as an animal. From all appearances, deception has always been critical to daily survival—for human and non-human creatures alike—and, judging from its current ubiquity, there is no end in immediate sight.

Deception is a furtive snake, a pretender of dead leaves, a flatfish on an ocean floor. It is always, only, just itself. Yet it takes on new colors and patterns with ease, to keep pace with the sinister, on-going march of malevolent surveillance. To quote William Shakespeare: "How easy is a bush a bear."

A pioneering champion of modern camouflage was Abbott Handerson Thayer, a well-known American painter from New Hampshire. In 1892, in a paper in a scientific journal, he unveiled his discovery of "The Meaning of the White Undersides of Animals."

As a classically trained painter, Thayer was adept at shading, by which a completely flat drawing can look three-dimensional. He discovered that animals have light-colored underbellies because, in his words, they are "counter-shaded." They are darkest on their backs, which are most often in direct sunlight, and lightest on their undersides. An effectively camouflaged prey may appear flat and insubstantial.

An alternate term for counter-shading is Thayer's Law. But Thayer's scientific research, according to Theodore Roosevelt, was diluted by his "artistic temperament." His pronouncements were provocative, in part because he boasted that Nature behaves like an artist, not a scientist. The concealing coloration of animals, said Thayer, "belongs to the realm of pictorial art and can only be interpreted by painters." His writings were also annoying because, at the end of the 19th century, camouflage was thought to be unmanly or effeminate. A courageous soldier stands his ground. He would rather fight than switch. Bring 'em on.

To paraphrase Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is "girlie" to dress in a ghillie.

It was Thayer who blazed a conceptual path between military camouflage and protective coloration in nature. As early as the Spanish-American War, he and a loyal American friend, the painter George de Forest Brush, proposed that a fighting ship should have the same coloration as a sea gull. Soon after, Brush developed a plan for a transparent airplane.

Modern camouflage became feasible in reply to the German use of the airplane as a way to pinpoint targets for long-range bombardment. Although its paternity is debatable, the originators of World War I camouflage appear to have been artists, who were serving at the time in the French infantry. Dressed in paint-streaked, hooded cloaks (called cargoules), French gun crews were "discovered by hostile airmen [only] with the greatest difficulty and with considerable risk because of the necessity of swooping low in order to unmask the camouflage."

By far the most famous eyewitness account of modern camouflage is reported in Gertrude Stein's autobiography, which she impishly mistitled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. During the first winter of the Great War, as she and Pablo Picasso were walking at night on the Boulevard Raspail, "All of a sudden down the street came some big cannon, the first any of us had seen painted, that is camouflaged. Pablo stopped, he was spellbound. 'C'est nous qui avons fait ca,' he said, 'it is we who have created that.'"

In spite of contributions made by artists to wartime camouflage, there has always been ample hostility in the exchanges between artists and the military. Late in World War I, an American Army officer exclaimed, "Oh, God, as if we didn't have enough trouble! They send us artists!" Even the French public was unconvinced of the practicality of abstract paint splattering, as shown by the fact that the moniker for French camoufleurs was les barbouilleurs, the childish scribblers or smearers.

Among the American camoufleurs was Henry Berry, who later detailed his experience in an autobiography titled Make the Kaiser Dance. Once, while Berry was serving in France, John J. Pershing, the American Commanding General, drove up suddenly, unannounced, and Berry (holding a sketchbook of camouflage plans) and his unit were required to stand for inspection. When Pershing asked Berry what he had in his hand, he replied, "Oh, this is just my sketchbook." "Sketchbook, sketchbook," Pershing thundered, "what the hell do you think this is, an art school? You're in the United States Army, soldier. Give me that sketchbook." Berry handed it over, and of course he never saw it again.

A year earlier, Pershing had been present in the U.S. at another inspection, at which he was the tour guide for Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. President, and John Singer Sargent, the acclaimed society painter. Wilson, his wife, and the painter had come to a camp on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., to inspect the amusing accomplishments of a new military unit, consisting mostly of artists, called the American Camouflage Corps. In a still-existing photograph of that inspection, Pershing is shown at the moment he says to President Wilson that a camouflaged soldier is within ten feet. Soon after, a rock in the nearby foreground moves, and a sniper pops out and salutes them. An imitation rock, made of papier mache, it had served as the lid of a foxhole.

For many people, perhaps the most curious episode in camouflage history is the optical disruption of ships by means of a method called dazzle during World War I. This tactic was developed by a British naval officer and seascape painter named Norman Wilkinson. His American counterpart was Everett Warner, an artist (born in Vinton, Iowa) who supervised other artists who camouflaged American ships during both world wars.

In thinking about camouflage, most people assume that it only occurs when a figure blends in with a background. On the contrary, it is most likely to result from a high difference strategy that consists of a blending of blending with dazzle, in what is called coincident disruption. The originator of that term was a British zoologist, military camoufleur and scientific illustrator named Hugh B. Cott, who said of art and camouflage (respectively) that "the one makes something unreal recognizable [while] the other makes something real unrecognizable." In cognitive psychology, shapes that are encrypted by coincident disruption are known as embedded figures.

In the U.S. in the 1960s, there was a television game called "Camouflage" in which contestants were required to unearth hidden figures. These began as simple line drawings of common objects such as shoes, hats, keys or mittens, but were then made hard to see by superimposing a maze of meandering, meaningless lines.

Later, this same television show was turned into a parlor game called "Camouflage: A Game of Fun, Skill and Perception." It enabled the Cleavers and other American families to play along with the game show by attaching a sheet of plastic to their television screen, or by recreating the game in their own living rooms, without a television. On the cover of the box are cartoon drawings of nine contestants or family members, with a letter from the word CAMOUFLAGE embedded in each.

In 1925, the Hungarian-born Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer bought his first bicycle, as therapeutic relief from the rigors of inventing furniture. Preoccupied with the design process, he presumably looked at the strong tubular steel frame of his new bicycle, and saw instead the ingredients of a new lightweight chair. Voila! He invented his now-famous Wassily chair using materials and production techniques that until then had been associated with bicycles.

Later, in the mid-30s, as Breuer prepared to emigrate from Germany to England, he addressed a package to his friends in London. Opening it, they were surprised and disgusted to find a copy of Adolf Hitler's book, Mein Kampf. Regarding this as a tasteless joke, they threw it into the trash. Soon after however, when Breuer arrived, he asked for the book, explaining that, in order to leave Germany with more money than was legally allowed, he had interleaved the Fuhrer's book with banknotes, thinking that no one would ever look there.

When I told this story to my wife, she shared a similar incident from her high school days at a religious girls school. One day during lunch, she and three other students were smoking cigarettes outside, behind the school, when a nun suddenly appeared. All the other girls were caught red-handed when they discarded their still-lit cigarettes on the ground. But my resourceful wife escaped, for lack of evidence—she had hidden her lit cigarette in her egg salad sandwich.

In daily experience, camouflage could be described as disguising one thing as two, two things as one, three as two, and so on. Most often, it causes confusion between an object and its background (called blending), between one kind of object and another (mimetic resemblance), or makes a single thing divide into meaningless fragments (dazzle). In category formation, we use these very same tactics in producing what we commonly call innovative, inventive or creative patterns. This is true of all areas of human experience, since categories such as "art" and "science" were arrived at by comparable means. This is the foremost reason for the importance of camouflage.

In conclusion, I will leave you with a quote from science educator Robert Scott Root-Bernstein: "Any educational system that fails to teach students how to play with and integrate the tools of thought is producing intellectually handicapped students…Until we understand how people form and recognize patterns, use metaphors, make analogies, abstract, develop aesthetic sensibility, playact, play, manipulate, model, think kinesthetically —and how to correlate those tools of thought through transformational thinking—we will never succeed in understanding how inventive people invent, or how to train others to emulate them." 

                                                —Roy R. Behrens (2006)

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Camouflage: Art, Science and Popular Culture

False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002)

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This page copyright © by Roy R. Behrens

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On Max Wertheimer and Pablo Picasso: Gestalt Theory, Cubism and Camouflage

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