Thursday March 15, 2007
[...] Warhol's art of war is the climax to Camouflage, an exhibition that tells the story of how cubism inspired a new approach to military designs and uniforms in the 20th century. This revolution in European art just preceded the first world war: from 1909 onwards, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque took the European conventions of the picture apart, destroying perspective and turning appearances inside-out. Their paintings were nicknamed "cubist" and by 1914 cubism was notorious; its jagged, broken appearance seemed abstract at first glance, though was actually profoundly concerned with representation. When war broke out, this new art gave birth to a military invention that still shapes our visual culture today.
Traditional armies flaunted visibility. Banners fluttered, cavalries massed, infantry donned bright red coats. By the end of 1914, a conflict expected to be "over by Christmas" turned into a nightmare stalemate. This new war fought from trenches made soldiers want to vanish into the mud. One terror was aerial photography. How could artillery positions be concealed from cameras in the sky? Soldiers who had been artists before the war remembered seeing cubist paintings - and started to experiment with fragmented patterns on field guns and uniforms.
CRW Nevinson's 1917 painting A Tank shows an early British lozenge-shaped tank painted with a radical, modernist pattern in orange, green and black: it's impossible to miss the cubist look of such early camouflage. The Sphere magazine in 1918 tried to explain the origin of the new word "camouflage", tracing it to a 17th century French expression for a malevolent puff of smoke. At sea, Norman Wilkinson, a painter of traditional seascapes, led a group that decorated British dreadnoughts with diagonal, high-contrast "dazzle" patterns. Wilkinson and other British pioneers were no fans of the avant garde, but war made modernists of them. "We did that!" Picasso is supposed to have said when he saw a camouflaged gun.