How do you camouflage a warship? The traditional technique of blending natural colours and textures is difficult given the number of different backgrounds warships will be seen against. Norman Wilkinson, a marine painter, invented a different solution in the first world war – effectively doing the opposite and making the camouflage stand out in a way that aims to confuse and disorient the enemy. “Dazzle” camouflage, as it was known, was used by American and British warships in the first and second world wars. The ships were painted in Cubist/Vortex art patterns to create three-dimensional shimmering effects, making it difficult to determine the ships direction, speed and distance and, in theory, therefore disorientating whoever was firing the torpedoes. Several thousand Dazzle ships were painted in a variety of colours in the First World War under the supervision of another artist, Edward Wadsworth, who celebrated them in his 1919 painting of these ships in dry dock in Liverpool. Each painting was unique and many of the designs were developed by women at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and then painted onto models for testing through a mock-periscope to see how they would look at sea.
The technique has generally fallen out of use, no doubt in part due to the use of modern technology to track ships. In 2008 Jeff Koons designed the artwork “Guilty” on the yacht of art collector Dakis Joannou. Now two new Dazzle ships have been created as part of the art programme “1418Now – WW1 Centenary Art Commissions”.
In Liverpool, in a joint initiative between Tate Liverpool, 1418Now, National Museums Liverpool and the Liverpool Biennial, Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez designed the artwork for an old Liverpool pilot ship called the Edmund Gardner which was then painted by a team from shipbuilding firm Cammell Laird. Carlos Cruz-Diez’s work is currently on show in exhibitions on Latin American art at the Royal Academy and at Maddox Arts in London. His work often create a changing three-dimensional effect, so he is a good choice to move outside for the design of a Dazzle ship.
In London, HMS President, built in 1918 and which actually was a “Dazzle Ship” during the first world war, has been painted to designs by German sculptor Tobias Rehberger whose sculptural and installation work often creates disorienting three-dimensional effects, much of which seemed to derive from Dazzle ships camouflage, as seen at his exhibition earlier this year in Frankfurt. He is therefore another perfect choice for this commission.
Mark Brown in the Guardian reports that Rehberger first came across “Dazzle ships” 20 years ago. “I thought it was a funny paradox, to camouflage something with a pattern that is so obvious and so visually strong. “It makes sense after you know what it is, but when you first see it, of course it is … what? This is how they camouflaged their battleships? It fascinated me for quite a while and I always wanted to do something with it.”
The Tate has a boat that connects the two galleries along the river in London, designed by Damien Hirst. Perhaps we might see more of these floating artworks brightening up rivers and harbours?