‘Dazzle’ is a style of ship camouflage characterised by brilliant, glaring geometric patterns. Widely used in the First World War and into the Second, ‘dazzle’ does not strive to make a ship invisible to its enemies, but rather to confuse their attempts to sink it by making it difficult to accurately gauge the distance, direction and speed at which it is travelling.
Military camouflage was little-used before the First World War, into which the French had marched in blue coat and red trousers, but the introduction of modern weaponry soon forced a change. The first army camouflage unit was led by a French painter named Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola. He helped to pioneer the style of camouflage familiar to us today, replacing a single colour that roughly corresponded to the prevailing landscape (dun green in fields, for example, or khaki in the desert) with overlapping shapes that slip the eye’s grasp.
Many early camoufleurs were artists, and the styles that they invented drew upon the art of their time as well as studies of animal camouflage undertaken by the American naturalist and painter Abbott H. Thayer. de Scévola said that ‘in order to deform totally the aspect of the object, I had to employ the means that cubists use to represent it’, namely fracturing it into splinters of shape and colour. Of ‘dazzle’ camouflage, Picasso said that ‘Yes, it is we who made it, that is cubism.’
‘Dazzle’ was developed by the British marine artist Norman Wilkinson to counter the threat posed by German U-Boats. He employed techniques that resembled those of avant-garde British painters such as Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg. Artist Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the application of ‘dazzle’ patterning to over 2,000 ships, later made a series of paintings on the subject.
The close relationship of ‘dazzle’ technology to British art extended right through its manufacture. Each British pattern was unique, and many of the designs were invented by women from the Royal Academy of Arts in London. These were then tested on wooden models, viewed through a periscope in a studio to assess how they would work at sea. Though the practice has largely (but not entirely) fallen out of fashion in the military, ‘dazzle’ remains a source of inspiration to artists today.
To learn more about the history of Dazzle ships below is a list of links to historical resources:-
Take a look at Liverpool Biennal’s Digital Resource for schools:
- How did an artist help Britain fight the war at sea? Read the BBC’s one-stop interactive guide to Dazzle camouflage
- Read Camoupedia’s extensive piece Dazzle Camouflage
- Camouflaged Ships: An Illustrated History
- The National Museum of American History’s piece, Dazzle camouflage: The art of war
- The Rhode Island School of Design’s dedicated website Dazzle Camouflage
- A Brief History of Military Camouflage
- Howstuffworks explains how military camouflage works
- The Tate on the intersection between Art, Culture and Camouflage
- War Art Schemes of the First World War
- Art of the First World War
- The Artist at War: Painters, Muralists, Sculptors, Architects Worked to Provide Camouflage for Troops in World War I
- The paintings of Lucien Victor Guirand de Scevola, credited as the inventor of camouflage
- The paintings of Norman Wilkinson, who developed Dazzle painting
- The paintings of Edward Alexander Wadsworth, who supervised the application of Dazzle patterning to over 2,000 ships
- From Battlefield to Catwalk – the Canadian War Museum’s exhibition looking at the legacy of camouflage