When was camouflage invented?

Pablo Picasso is said to have exclaimed at the sight of a camouflaged cannon that was planted in Paris during the First World War: "C'est nous qui avons fait ça!" - It's us who created this. "Nous", that was the Cubists, and "ça", that was the fragmented areas of color that covered the gun. Gertrude Stein, who wrote the anecdote, agreed with Picasso: she said that there was a direct line from Cézanne to the Cubists to the aesthetics of camouflage.

It is undisputed that sophisticated camouflage methods did not prevail in the European armies until World War I, although the British successfully reduced their combat losses in India as early as 1880 by exchanging their white uniforms for khaki ones. In its exhibition "Camouflage", the London Imperial War Museum examines the development of this camouflage aesthetic between military necessity, art and design. In doing so, it creates fascinating cross-connections in terms of art and military history.

It would undoubtedly be an exaggeration to claim that the Cubists were solely responsible for the fact that the French began to cover artillery, planes and tanks with deceptive color patterns as early as the first months of the war. But the Cubist influence on these paintings cannot be denied.

Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola, a Parisian portrait painter who is considered the inventor of artillery camouflage and who headed the first camouflage division of the French army, said unequivocally: "To completely deform the sight of the object, I had to use the means of the Cubists apply." It was clear to De Scévola that soldiers and equipment had to be made as difficult as possible to assess in the open field in a war in which flight reconnaissance was carried out on a large scale for the first time. The French - shortly afterwards, all other warring factions - developed appropriate camouflage strategies.

Camo as a declaration of war

For smaller targets, it made sense to adapt them to the surroundings: the soldiers' coats took on the mud color of the trenches, shiny spiked hoods disappeared under gray-brown fabric covers. But large, cumbersome targets like guns and tanks couldn't just blur into the landscape. Here it was important to let the outlines of the objects optically fray from a distance and to transform them into a target that was as unclear as possible.

Soon they began to apply the stains that are still used today, but often also bright zigzag patterns. The object disintegrated into colorful, geometric shapes, which made it less concrete - the perfect confusion tactic.

These disruptive patterns found their most spectacular expression in the so-called "dazzle patterns". After devastating attacks by German submarines on British ships, Lieutenant-Commander Norman Wilkinson began to paint the fleet with bold and decorative paintwork in black, white and blue. The bars, waves and rhombuses were supposed to make it difficult to assess the exact position of the ship from the periscope, and they did so with success: A German submarine captain is quoted as saying that it was the best camouflage he has ever made have seen.

In this way, tactical necessity turned Norman Wilkinson, who before the war had been a conservative, avant-garde painter of naval subjects, into a modernist. The ship models shown in the Imperial War Museum, with the help of which the dazzle patterns were tested for their effectiveness, now seem like an exercise in serially applied synthetic cubism.

While the first part of the exhibition concentrates on the solutions that artists found in the military service for armed problems, in the further course it looks at the effects of the aesthetics created in this way on civil society.

An early example of the adoption of military designs for fashion purposes is the "Dazzle Ball" given in Chelsea in 1919. The decorations of the costumes are based on Wilkinson's designs, which gives them a distinctly harlequin character. So the Harlequin theme, so favored by the Cubists, comes back to its ancestral surroundings in the form of a re-civilized camouflage pattern.

Camouflage pattern as a decorative gesture

Pop culture discovered the camouflage pattern on a large scale at the anti-Vietnam demonstrations of the sixties: veterans protesting against the war in their green-brown jungle uniform jackets are taking the first step towards the subversion of military colors. "Camo" becomes the signal color of the anti-establishment, it replaces the blue jeans as a declaration of war on the civil bourgeoisie.

The trend continues in the eighties, in which the gray-blue street combat gear of the US Army with its famous "woodland" pattern characterizes the urban guerrilla look, promoted by groups such as Public Enemy. As is so often the case, haute couture soon made use of this decidedly anti-fashion: Jean-Paul Gaultier, Paul Smith and Versace adopted the camouflage pattern as a decorative gesture in the nineties. Today "Camo" makes billions in sales. A whole showcase in London is dedicated to the most varied of utensils, from skateboards to wallets to bikinis, combined in a tamed camouflage color design.

In its purest form, Andy Warhol has made the element of deception his own that defines successful camouflage. His series of "Camouflage" acrylic pictures (1986), which is a highlight of the London exhibition, defies any fixed meaning. Are these military patterns with their cheerful primary colors a consequent continuation of the camouflage principle, created for those who do not want to stand out in the club or in the mall? Or do they just point to themselves and thus negate their original purpose? At Warhol, the work of art becomes pure camouflage: it camouflages itself.

"Camouflage" in the Imperial War Museum until November 18th. Info: 0044 (0) 20 7416 5320, catalog £ 24.95.