- Item: 7x5 inch original photograph, 1918. Camouflage on the Belgian Front. With original text. Very good condition. $125
Its a little difficult to think of Ellsworth Kelly, Jacques Villon, Grant Wood, Laslo Moholy-Nagy and Thomas Hart Benton as painters-for-war. But its true, and true for many of hundreds of other artists in the 1915-1918 era. Its not as though they were in the trenches gunning down the enemy or lobbing hand grenades into the swirling gunsmoke. They were camofleurs, camouflage1 experts, artists employed as magicians, Wartime Magi, employed/drafted to make ships and such disappear.
Ever since it was (sort of) first noticed in 1915 that designs odd to the environment, stark geometric patterns and such, were capable of fooling the eye, people with design capacity were pressed into service, rendering offensive and defensive instruments of war optically semi-impervious with variations of the then-five-year-old modern nonrepresentational art. That must've been a very odd position to wake up to every morning.
Of course the idea of camouflage in the animal world is probably 250 million years old--animals and insects have been blending into their environment for eons, and I'm sure too that early hominids did their fair share of walking behind brush. But the idea of hiding great amalgamations of very heavy metal with paint is really quite modern.
In this photograph the camouflage is more a more futuristic conception of art than the abstract and cubist approaches that were taken during the war, this looking more like assemblages of found material more than anything else. And, according to the text that accompanied the photograph (which comes from 1918, from the Underwood & Underwood news photo service agency), the camouflage--empty sandbags thrown on a barbed wire fence) successfully concealed a gunnery emplacement for months on end.
1. A fine bibliography on camouflage appears here, at Leonardo Online.