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One of Germany’s most feared and effective weapons during World War I was its fleet of submarines—known as U-boats—that roamed the Atlantic, sneaking up underwater on British merchant ships and destroying them with torpedoes. During the course of the war, they sank more than 5,700 vessels, killing more than 12,700 non-combatants in the process.
The British weren’t sure what to do. Camouflage worked in land warfare, but it was another matter for an object as big as a cargo ship to blend into the ocean, especially when smoke was billowing from its stacks.
But a Royal Navy volunteer reserve lieutenant named Norman Wilkinson—a painter, graphic designer and newspaper illustrator in his civilian life—came up with a radical but ingenious solution: Instead of trying to hide ships, make them conspicuous.
By covering ships’ hulls with startling stripes, swirls and irregular abstract shapes that brought to mind the Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque, one could momentarily confuse a German U-boat officer peering through a periscope. The patterns would make it more difficult to figure out the ship’s size, speed, distance and direction.
Wilkinson’s idea was a startling contrast to those of other camouflage theorists. American artist Abbott Thayer, for example, advocated painting ships white and concealing their smokestacks with canvas in an effort to make them blend into the ocean, according to Smithsonian.
Dazzle camouflage, as Wilkinson’s concept came to be called, “appeared to be counter-intuitive,” explains Roy R. Behrens, a professor of art and Distinguished Scholar at the University of Northern Iowa, who writes “Camoupedia,” a blog that’s a compendium of research on the art of camouflage. “For Wilkinson to come up with the ideas of redefining camouflage as high visibility as opposed to low visibility was pretty astonishing.”
As Peter Forbes writes in his 2009 book Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage, Wilkinson—who commanded an 80-foot motorboat used for minesweeping off the British coast—apparently was inspired during a weekend fishing trip in the Spring of 1917. When he returned to the Royal Navy’s Devonport dockyard, he went straight to his superior officer with his idea.
“I knew it was utterly impossible to render a ship invisible,” Wilkinson later recalled, according to Forbes’ book. But it had occurred to him that if a black ship was broken up with white stripes it would visually confuse the enemy.
“The idea had precedent in nature, with the pattern disruption in the coloration of animals,” Behrens says. As a study by British and Australian researchers nearly a century later would reveal, zebras’ stripes seem to serve that purpose, turning a herd into what appears to be a chaotic mess of lines from a distance, and making it tougher for lions and other predators to intercept them.
As Behrens explains, when submerged, the Germans’ only way of sighting a target was through the periscope, which they could only poke through the water for a fleeting moment because of the risk of being detected. They had to use that tiny bit of visual data to calculate where in the water to aim the torpedo, so that it would arrive at that spot at the same moment as the ship they were trying to sink.
Wilkinson’s camouflage scheme was designed to interfere with those calculations, by making it difficult to tell which end of the ship was which, and where it was headed. With torpedoes, there wasn’t much margin for error, so if the dazzle camouflage threw off the calculations by only a few degrees, that might be enough to cause a miss and save a British ship.
“It was exploiting the limited view of the periscope,” Behrens explains.
An art-lover today might assume that dazzle camouflage was the brainchild of a cubist painter, not someone such as Wilkinson, a representational artist who liked to paint ships and seascapes. Claudia Covert, a special collections librarian at the Rhode Island School of Design and author of a 2007 article on Dazzle camouflage in Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, says that Wilkinson “was probably aware of these contemporary movements—Cubism, Futurism, and Vorticism. In fact, one of the Vorticist painters, Edward Wadsworth, oversaw ships being dazzled in Liverpool during the war.”
Additionally, “you have to remember that Wilkinson was not only a seascape painter but also a poster designer,” Behrens says. “So he had to work with abstract forms, colors and shapes.”
Though the British Admiralty probably didn’t include too many modern art enthusiasts, the losses from U-boat attacks were so devastating that they soon authorized Wilkinson to set up a camouflage unit at the Royal Academy in London. He recruited other artists, who were given Naval Reserve commissions, and they got to work.
Wilkinson made models of ships on a revolving table and then viewed them through a periscope, using screens, lights and backgrounds to see how the dazzle paint schemes would look at various times of day and night. He used one of those models to impress a visitor, King George V, who stared through the periscope and guessed that the model ship was moving south-by-west, only to be surprised to discover that it was moving east-by-southeast.
By October 1917, British officials were sufficiently convinced of dazzle’s effectiveness that they ordered that all merchant ships should get the special paint jobs, according to this 1999 article by Behrens.
At the request of the U.S. government, Wilkinson sailed across the Atlantic in March 1918 and met with Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, and then helped to set up a camouflage unit headed by American impressionist painter Everett Warner.
By the end of the war, more than 2,300 British ships had been decorated with dazzle camouflage. How successful dazzle actually was in thwarting U-boat attacks isn’t clear. As Forbes explains, a postwar commission concluded that it probably only provided a slight advantage.
“When the US Navy adopted Wilkinson's scheme for both merchant and fighting ships there is statistical evidence to support Wilkinson's technique,” Forbes says. A total of 1,256 merchant and fighting ships, were camouflaged between March 1 and November 11, 1918. Ninety six ships over 2,500 tons were sunk; of these only 18 were camouflaged and all of them were merchant ships. "None of the camouflaged fighting ships were sunk,” he says
“It’s important to remember that ships didn’t just rely upon dazzle camouflage for protection from U-boats,” Behrens explains. “It was used in combination with tactics such as zig-zagging and traveling in convoys, in which the most vulnerable ships were kept in the center of the formation, surrounded by faster, more dangerous ships capable of destroying submarines.” The synergy of those measures was “wonderfully effective,” he says.
Dazzle camouflage was resurrected by the U.S. during World War II, and was used on the decks of ships as well, in an effort to confuse enemy aircraft. Today’s electronic surveillance technology makes dazzle pretty much obsolete for protecting ships, but as Forbes points out, the concept of visually disruptive patterns is still used in military uniforms.
Hiding Ships In Plain Sight: How Dazzle Camouflage Is Used To Confuse The Enemy
Dazzle camouflage was the brainchild of British artist Norman Wilkinson. It was put forward as a solution to the problem that ships could not be camouflaged in the same way as tanks or other military vehicles.
Wilkinson was possibly inspired by the cubist movement and artists like Picasso, who deliberately distorted angles and perspective for artistic effect. If the same technique was applied to ships, it would not make them harder to see, but it could make it more difficult for an enemy to judge distance, direction, and speed of the vessel accurately which would give them a military advantage. It would also make it hard to tell which type of ship was approaching.
Earlier attempts to disguise ships included hiding gun ports behind a canvas which was painted to look like the body of the ship, or adding painted false gunports to confuse the enemy. Wilkinson’s theory was that although the “masses of strongly contrasting color” used in the design could, in fact, make the ship more visible, this apparent disadvantage was outweighed by the fact that it would be much harder to hit.
The patterns used included bold geometric shapes painted in strongly contrasting colors. Bold lines interrupted and intersected each other at unusual angles to create a disorienting distorted effect. This is quite different from most of the camouflage found in the natural world which uses disruptive coloration to help the animal merge with its environment.
The leopard’s spot pattern or the tiger’s irregular stripes are typical of this effect. This approach is also the basis of traditional military camouflage as it allows the object or person to merge with the background. But for a ship at sea, there is no background, so a different approach was required.
RMS Olympic painted by A. Lismer
Black and white stripes were the basis of many of the patterns used in dazzle camouflage although each ship had its own unique pattern. The stripes were painted at confusing angles instead of following the lines and form of the vessel, making it hard for the enemy to judge speed, direction, distance or type of vessel. The uniqueness of each design ensured that the patterning gave no clue as to the type of vessel and to maximize this effect designers ensured that there was no correlation between the class of vessel and the style of camouflage used.
Camouflage History: the First Touch
In the earlier periods, when sea combat was close-range, there was no point in using camouflage. In 1854, for improving concealment characteristics, they started painting the gunboats in the Russian Imperial Navy, which were operating on the Baltic Sea, in a gray-blue color similar to the color of skerries when viewed at a distance. Afterwards, during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), the Russian small torpedo boats Chesma, Sinop, Navarino, and Sukhum-Kale were painted in a light-green color similar to the color of sea water. However, the experience gained in these two wars was not carried through.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, warships of different countries, especially cruisers and ironclads, had luxury and taffeta camouflages. They had white or black hulls, white superstructures, yellow funnels, and many gold-plated decorations. The Victorian style was running the show, and the Mistress of the Sea was setting the tone.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese and the Austro-Hungarian Navies were the first to walk away from such patterns. In September 1903, the ships in the Russian Pacific Fleet based at Port Arthur were repainted in the “combat” olive drab color. At the same time, the Second and Third Pacific Squadrons that sailed to the Far East at the beginning of the war had the old taffeta camouflages: black hulls and superstructures with bright yellow funnels. The results are well-known: as the distances for engagements increased, the Japanese ships painted to match the stormy sea had an advantage.
The battles during the Russo-Japanese War revealed the benefits of camouflages on warships. The combat distances increased, and painting a ship to make aiming at her more difficult and help the ship blend in with the water surface became an essential attribute of military fleets. The experiments with different patterns continued until the beginning of World War I. However, sailors were very skeptical about the innovation. The visibility conditions at sea were affected by too many factors: weather, time, etc. With the start of World War I, surface ships faced a new threat—submarines. It became necessary to blur the ship's exterior to hinder defining her movement parameters: course angle, speed, and distance to her.
That was when the British artist and the Navy officer Norman Wilkinson suggested a camouflage scheme, later known as dazzle camouflage, or razzle dazzle, or dazzle painting. He advised that ships be painted with abstract designs: to create illusive planes, angles, and other forms. Wilkinson served as an officer on a submarine and concluded that there was no need to hide the object, confusing the enemy preparing for a strike was more efficient.
In fairness, the first person who suggested painting ships in a «zebra» style was the British professor of zoology Graham Kerr. In September 1914, he sent a letter to First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, in which he said:
«… a continuous uniform shade renders conspicuous. This can be counteracted by breaking up the surface by violently contrasting pigments."
However, as it often happens, the idea was swept under the rug. It wasn’t until summer 1915 that the Admiralty gave the order to start experiments with disruptive camouflage, but according to Wilkinson's proposal.
The concept for that camouflage was based on the fancy fine arts of the time, mainly cubism. In those days, the aiming of torpedoes from a submarine was based on visual data. The submarine Commander calculated the distance triangle according to the data received with the help of an optical rangefinder. So, he defined all of a target's movement parameters visually: speed, size, and course angle. Using dazzling camouflage often made it harder for submariners to correctly define those parameters. Due to the unusual painting and ornaments, the sizes of the ship were disrupted, and her silhouette was blurred or blended in to sky or sea surface.
After the successful trials, the dazzle camouflage was adopted by the British, French, and U.S.A. Navies. The main colors in dazzling camouflage were black, white, white dirt, green, and blue. As such painting was applied not only on warships, but on merchant vessels too, the convoys that included those parrot-like ships looked completely stunning, according to witnesses. Besides the main scheme, the painting was often complemented with a fake wave on the forechain, which was misleading when defining the speed of the ship. The fake wave was also painted under the sternpost, to create an illusion as to the course of the target.
Nevertheless, the very first classic camouflage to make a ship less visible near the shore and distort her silhouette was used in the Russian Navy. During the Russo-Japanese War, the destroyers of the Vladivostok Independent Cruiser Squadron were covered with mottled paintwork that resembled a coastline. Later, in summer 1915, an artist from Sevastopol Yuri Shpazhinsky addressed the Ministry of the Navy, to propose a special ship camouflage scheme, which he called «illusory». According to his idea, such a scheme could make it difficult to define the distance to the ship. The Navy command found the proposal interesting, and gave the order to paint the camo on the Black Sea Fleet ironclad Sinop, destroyers Shchastlivyi and Gromkiy, and later, the avisos of the Baltic Fleet Kondor and Berkut (former border guard ships). Moreover, another of Shpazhinsky's ideas was tested on avisos: special lugs were mounted on masts and tubes, but they didn't have the impact expected, and further experiments were shut down. Also, in the Baltic Fleet, a few destroyers of the Novik class had a different camouflage scheme—horizontal lines of different colors, changing from dark (near the water) to light.
NYC Fireboat Rebranded in Vibrant Dazzle Camouflage to Commemorate WWI
This summer, visitors to New York Harbor may encounter an unusual sight: fireboat John J. Harvey, newly cloaked in red-and-white patterns evocative of a candy cane.
The historic ship, which first docked in the city in 1931 and is now a museum and education center, is one of five boats featured in a centenary World War I initiative co-sponsored by the Public Art Fund and British-based organization 14-18 NOW. Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier reports that the reimagined vessel is the brainchild of American artist Tauba Auerbach, who is calling the paint job "Flow Separation." The boat, as well as boats docked in London, Liverpool and Leith, Scotland, commemorates the wartime tradition of “dazzle camouflage,” an experimental technique designed to ward off German U-boats by assailing submarine commanders with a cacophony of clashing colors.
Dazzle camouflage dates back to 1917. In February of that year, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II authorized the use of unrestricted U-boat warfare against neutral and enemy ships alike. The switch from targeted torpedoing to indiscriminate attacks devastated the already crippled British fleet, which lost 925 ships in the span of just 10 months, and brought World War I to a critical point.
Norman Wilkinson, a British artist and illustrator who moonlighted as a Royal Navy volunteer, observed this new brand of warfare with increasing unease, Sam Willis reports for the BBC. Hoping to brainstorm a winning protective mechanism, he turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: modern art.
“Since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer,” Wilkinson later recounted. “In other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as the course on which she was heading.”
Wilkinson’s scheme was brilliantly counterintuitive. Instead of attempting to blend into the ocean seascape, ships would attract enemy combatants’ attention through a dizzying array of colors and shapes. These designs, ranging from alternating swaths of orange and blue to curved lines capable of simulating a ship’s bow wave, masked vessels’ “shape, size and direction,” Linda Rodriguez McRobbie writes for Smithsonian.com. By confusing U-boat commanders long enough to prevent them from accurately aiming and firing, merchant ships would, hypothetically, have enough time to fight back.
British destroyer HMS Badsworth (Imperial War Museum via Wiki Commons)
According to the BBC’s Willis, dazzle camouflage was applied to more than 2,000 ships over the course of World War I. Although the number of successful U-boat attacks fell in conjunction with the scheme’s implementation, it’s unclear how much of an impact dazzle actually had, as additional countermeasures were instituted around the same time.
Roy Behrens, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of several works on dazzle camouflage, tells McRobbie that a September 1918 Admiralty report reached inconclusive results. In the first quarter of the year, 72 percent of dazzled ships attacked by U-boats sunk or experienced significant damage, while 62 percent of non-dazzled ships sank or were damaged. In the second quarter, these figures switched: 60 percent of attacks on dazzled ships resulted in sinking or damage, as opposed to 68 percent of non-dazzled ships.
In 2016, researchers at the University of Bristol found that dazzle camouflage had a measurable influence on a target’s perceived speed, enabling targets to simulate faster or slower movement based on the direction of their camouflage pattern. This research built on a 2011 Bristol study that suggested camouflage can affect speed perception, but only if the target is moving quickly.
By World War II, dazzle camouflage had fallen out of favor with the British Admiralty, replaced by the accurate mapping of radar technology. Although British merchant ships operating during World War I were unable to reach high enough speeds for the dazzle to work properly, the unconventional technique holds a unique place in military history. In addition to boosting morale amongst dazzle ship crews, the designs reportedly impressed cubist master Pablo Picasso, who, upon seeing a Parisian tank painted in a dazzle pattern, exclaimed, “It is us who created that.”
And while dazzle camouflage hasn't been seen in warfare in recent years, Nick Scott-Samuel, a professor of visual perception at Bristol who co-authored the 2016 dazzle study, tells Willis the technique could have applications in modern warfare.
“In a typical situation involving an attack on a Land Rover, the reduction in perceived speed would be sufficient to make the grenade miss by about a metre,” Scott-Samuel explains. “This could be the difference between survival or otherwise.”
Like the World War I vessels it commemorates, John J. Harvey's dazzle paint attempts to fool the eye, making it hard to tell which direction the boat is moving.
Auerbach used a process known as marbling to generate “these kinds of patterns with fluid dynamics,” project curator Emma Enderby tells Meier.
“Her design was very much influenced by the fact that this was a fireboat, so it has water moving through the body of the boat as well, and that was her way into the project … thinking of that movement of water,” Enderby explains.
Although it currently stands out amongst the fleet at New York Harbor, come May 2019, the fireboat will return to its original dazzle-free exterior, mirroring the Allied vessels’ post-war reversal from chaotic color to somber gray.
“ Flow Separation” is on view at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6, Hudson River Park’s Pier 25 Hudson River Park’s Pier 66a through May 2019. Visit on the weekend to enjoy a free voyage, or stop by on a weekday to explore the ship’s deck.
“Razzle Dazzle them”- the curious use of dazzle camouflage in the two World Wars
Earlier this month two remarkable ships were unveiled as part of the commemoration of the start of World War One, painted with striking designs known as dazzle camouflage. On the 14 th July 2014 HMS President, which in fact wore just such a colour scheme back when it served in World War One, went on display at Victoria Embankment sporting a black, white and greyscale geometric design created by German sculptor Tobias Rehberger. Two days earlier, on 12 th July, Venezuelan optical artist Carlos Cruz-Diez had debuted his own design, a vivid striped motif, on pilot ship Edmund Gardner. The ship is owned and was preserved by the Merseyside Maritime Museum, and the decoration played a dual part in the Centennial commemoration and the celebration of Liverpool’s Biennial. Both ships will remain on display until the end of 2015, and both are somewhat shocking to behold. How can such stand-out designs possibly be classed as camouflage?
The first definition of camouflage in the Oxford Dictionary is ‘the disguising of military personnel, equipment, and installations by painting or covering them to make them blend in with their surroundings’. Blend in- practically the opposite of dazzle, then. However, the dictionary then gives a further description of camouflage as ‘actions or devices intended to disguise or mislead’. That’s more like it.
Think of the natural world for a second. Zebra, leopard, tiger, giraffe. Each of these species is coloured in such a ludicrously bold fashion you wonder how it could possibly avoid detection in the wild. Yet they all do, largely because there IS no set colour scheme for the terrain these animals call home. Grasslands and forests are neither green, brown, yellow, black, white or orange, they can be all or none of these things. Adopting one colour would be useless, and the bolder the pattern, the more it mesmerises and focuses attention away from what prey or predator might need to know. How big is the animal? Is it facing forwards or backwards? How fast is it moving, and where are its eyes focussed? It can be hard to tell.
‘Dazzle painting’, then, was a way of confusing and misleading the enemy. The sea, like grasslands and forests, is never still and has no set colour scheme. One minute it’s green, another blue, black or silver. The shapes and shades are ever-shifting. There’s no way to blend in, but you can distort, and you can focus attention away from features you want to hide. Is the ship approaching or going away? Is it even one ship, or two? Cruiser or merchant ship? How quickly will it reach a set point? With the right colour scheme, once again it can be hard to tell.
Abbott H Thayer, a New England artist and amateur naturalist, was the first to study how animals use camouflage to avoid accurate detection by enemies, and he realised that where the background couldn’t be predicted, and therefore completely matched, it was best to ‘break up’ a figure and use counter-shading and high-contrast colour to distort its outline. He accordingly appealed to the British military at the start of WWI to abandon their khaki uniforms and adopt a more mottled blend of colours. He is widely regarded to be the founding father of camouflage.
Around the same time, according to the Canadian Nautical Research Society, naturalist John Graham Kerr started working on similar theories for disguising ships. He sent a letter to Winston Churchill in 1914, explaining his theories and their root in nature, but although Winston Churchill was interested, ultimately Kerr’s lack of influence meant that his ideas were not taken seriously by the Navy.
Finally, in 1917, a man with the right friends began looking at how ‘dazzle painting’ could be used to protect battleships and convoys from attack by the fearful German U-Boats. Rhode Island School of Design’s website explains that Norman Wilkinson, already a famous marine painter and designer of posters for the rail and maritime travel industries, realised while acting as a Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and patrolling the increasingly dangerous seas, that there was no hope of hiding a ship, if only because of the smoke stacks. Confusion was the only hope of defence. Curves, he realised, could create impression of a false bow wave. Patterns on the bow and stern could conceal which end of the boat an enemy was looking at. Shapes on the smokestack could suggest a ship was pointing in a different direction to its true one, while optical illusions could be used to create a false impression of its size.
Wilkinson’s much-admired name opened doors, and the navy first allowed him to test his ideas at Devonport Naval Base, then, when tests went well, asked him to get to work producing some designs. Wilkinson, who had not been given an office, turned to his Alma Mater, the Royal Academy of Art, and was given a classroom to work in. Vorticist Edward Wadsworth was hired to oversee the painting of ships in Liverpool Harbour, while in 1918 Wilkinson travelled to the US to share his ideas with the US Navy. The Allies were so pleased with his work that they applied his designs to 2,000 warships and 4,000 British Merchant ships during the course of the two World Wars, including the HMS Argus, RMS Mauretania, RMS Olympic and USS Hancock.
The reason the designs were effective at the time was because the torpedo systems were slower and less accurate than those we have today. To shoot a British ship, the German U-boats had first to clearly identify the target, then determine the its speed and the direction in which it was heading and launch the torpedo towards the spot where they believed the ship would be by the time the missile reached it. The Germans had to work all this out by peering through primitive view-finders. If they couldn’t make out how big a ship was, where it was going or how fast it was moving, they would likely miss. Furthermore, when a whole convoy was painted with the dazzle camouflage patterns, which masked the identifying colours, features and lines of the various models of ship, it was very hard to pick out a pre-determined target among the bunch.
This cheap and simple concealment technique was still used at the start of the Second World War, but by the end it had become obsolete. Radar had been invented, rangefinders had improved, and much faster launch systems meant that there was less of a time lapse between shooting at and hitting a vessel, so there was no need to calculate the ship’s speed. It has never been conclusively proven that dazzle camouflage was effective as a form of protection, since the convoy system came into play around the same time as the painting technique. Certainly, less ships were hit from then on. However the vivid designs are still used today by the car industry to shield the specifics of new prototypes from competitors in the case of photos being leaked, so there must be something to Wilkinson’s concept!
It’s not where you are it’s where you’re going
World War I occurred from 1914–1918 back then sinking an enemy battleship was a three-step process:
Step 1: Locate your target’s position and plot its course.
Step 2: Determine the ship’s speed and confirm the direction it is heading
Step 3: Launch torpedo not directly at the ship, but where you think it’s going to be by the time the torpedo reaches the ship.
*Remember this is early 20th century warfare, weapons don’t travel at the speed they do today
So what’s your solution Fleet Admiral?
HIT THEM WITH THE RAZZLE DAZZLE
Forget about not being seen, that only solves their first problem. Focus on confusing them so they don’t know where you’re going. Then their torpedoes will be shot in vain because they thought you zigged when you really zagged.
British Artist and naval officer Norman Wilkinson had this very insight and pioneered the Dazzle Camouflage movement (known as Razzle Dazzle in the United States). Norman used bright, loud colours and contrasting diagonal stripes to make it incredibly difficult to gauge a ship’s size and direction.
It was cheap, effective, and widely-adopted during the War. Check out the incredible photographs below.
*NOTE: Unfortunately the images are in black and white, being from the early 1900s and all, so the loud, bold colours will require a little imagination. Can you picture a fleet of electric yellow, orange and purple ships coming to get ya!
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As sonar and radar technology improved, the once effective dazzle camouflage was rendered obsolete. By WWII the dazzle camouflage was an afterthought. Thankfully contemporary artists like Jeff Koons have kept the style alive with outrageous boats like this:
The Styrous® Viewfinder
Dazzle camouflage, also known as razzle dazzle (in the U.S.) or dazzle painting, was a family of ship camouflage used extensively in World War I, and to a lesser extent in World War II and afterwards. Credited to the British marine artist Norman Wilkinson, it consisted of complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other.
The 1919 painting, Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool, by Edward Wadsworth was the inspriation for the album, Dazzle Ships, by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), released in 1983 ( link below ).
In 1914, an embryologist named John Graham Kerr approached Winston Churchill and proposed a new way to camouflage Britain’s ships. Taking his inspiration from animals like the zebra and giraffe, he suggested that instead of trying to conceal their ships, they make them so glaringly conspicuous that it would be nearly impossible to target them.
Unlike other forms of camouflage, the intention of dazzle is not to conceal but to make it difficult to estimate a target's range, speed, and heading. Wilkinson explained in 1919 that he had intended dazzle primarily to mislead the enemy about a ship's course and so to take up a poor firing position.
The trick was in the paint, which formed optical illusions along the hulls of the ships. The goal was to make it so disjointed, so visually confusing, that rangefinders wouldn’t be able to get a fix on the ship’s location, size, and speed. The rangefinders used to pinpoint enemy ships at the time worked by creating two half-images of a target when the operator maneuvered the half-images into a single, unbroken image, he could calculate the ship’s distance, allowing them to calibrate the guns for an accurate shot.
But if you looked at a ship with dazzle camouflage, the two half-images still ended up looking like a mismatch, even when they were perfectly aligned. With their patterns of zigzags, spirals, and complex geometric shapes, the ships didn’t look like ships anymore all the distinguishing features normally used to identify a ship’s orientation—mainly the stern and the bow—were lost in the illusion.
The Admiralty made it a point to use a different paint scheme on every single ship so the enemy couldn’t learn to use the patterns to identify specific classes of ship. As a result, it was hard to tell what worked and what didn’t. There was no standard one ship could be painted bright blue with red spirals, and another might be painted with intersecting black and white bars. If one of those went down, it could have been because of the colors, or the pattern, or just because the enemy got lucky. There were too many factors involved to fairly evaluate it.
Every ship was given a different pattern. The Admiralty called in a creative army of artists, sculptors, and designers to create each design. While some were just crazy jumbles of lines and shapes, others were full-on optical illusions, creating such effects as making the center of the ship appear higher than either side.
Dazzle has been compared to the contemporary Vorticist art that was partly inspired by Cubism. Though the style grew out of Cubism, it is more closely related to Futurism in its embrace of dynamism, the machine age and all things modern (cf. Cubo-Futurism). However, Vorticism diverged from Futurism in the way it tried to capture movement in an image. In a Vorticist painting modern life is shown as an array of bold lines and harsh colours drawing the viewer's eye into the centre of the canvas.
The name Vorticism was given to the movement by Ezra Pound in 1913, although Wyndham Lewis, usually seen as the central figure in the movement, had been producing paintings in the same style for a year or so previously.
The movement was announced in 1914 in the first issue of BLAST, which contained its manifesto and the movement's rejection of landscape and nudes in favour of a geometric style tending towards abstraction. It became the literary magazine of that art movement in Britain but only two editions were published: the first on July 2, 1914 (dated 20 June 1914). The first edition contained many illustrations in the Vorticist style by Jacob Epstein, Lewis and others.
Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti gave a series of lectures at the Lyceum Club, in London in 1910, aimed at galvanizing support across Europe for the new Italian avant-garde. In his presentation he addressed his audience as "victims of . traditionalism and its medieval trappings," which electrified the assembled avant-garde. Within two years, an exhibition of futurist art at the Sackville Gallery, in London, brought futurism squarely into the popular imagination, and the press began to use the term to refer to any forward-looking trends in modern art.
The second (and last) edition of BLAST, by Wyndham Lewis and friends, included an article by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska it was written and submitted from the trenches of WWI.
Depiction of how Norman Wilkinson intended dazzle camouflage to cause the enemy to take up poor firing positions.
Claimed effectiveness: Artist's conception of a U-boat commander's periscope view of a merchant ship in dazzle camouflage (left) and the same ship uncamouflaged (right), Encyclopædia Britannica, 1922. The conspicuous markings obscure the ship's heading.
How Cubism Protected Warships in World War I
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Courtesy of Nik Hafermaas for Ueberall International
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If you’re stuck in traffic along the I-5 near San Diego International Airport, and your attention wanders from the brake lights in front of you, your eyes might land on a low-slung leviathan of a building, a third of a mile long, resembling the upper deck of a buried cruise ship peeking above ground. Keep your gaze there long enough, and you will notice that the geometric black-and-white pattern on the northeast side of the structure keeps changing.
Marty Graham is a freelance reporter based in San Diego.
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What you’re seeing is simply a gargantuan rental car center. But as of September, it’s also a massive e-ink display—and even a sort of time-travel portal. The project by artist Nik Hafermaas deploys thousands of e-paper panels to turn the side of the garage into a sort of outsize mutant Kindle screen, cycling through 15 different designs. Its mesmerizing show offers a flashback to a World War I-era camouflage technique known as Dazzle. That’s where your trip back in time begins.
During World War I, artists protected massive warships by hand-painting them with eye-popping monochrome shapes that fooled enemies aboard German U-boat submarines. The distracting patterns made it hard for periscope-peering targeters to be sure which part of the ship they were looking at, or where it was heading.
Hafermaas is not the first artist to be dazzled by Dazzle. Pablo Picasso is said to have claimed that Dazzle artists drew inspirations from his Cubist paintings. More recently, William Gibson’s science fiction novel Zero History drew inspiration from the disruptive patterns. But Hafermaas, who chairs the graphic design department at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, has actually brought Dazzle back to hypnotic life, in the largest display of the camouflage style in many decades. For the San Diego airport project, Hafermaas and his team at the Ueberall International studio commissioned 2,100 e-ink panels—each of which, solar-powered and wirelessly connected, becomes a pixel in a shifting array.
Hafermaas says he found his inspiration when, leafing through a magazine, he chanced upon pictures of a ship, painted in a distorted checkerboard of black and white. “I saw these patterns that are really part of minimalist art, op art,” Hafermaas says. “But here it’s not meant as art but as the functionality to disguise a warship. It looks like art, but it’s actually engineering.”
Dazzle painting originated in the UK, which in the early days of the Great War was losing ships to the new German U-boat wolf packs at a catastrophic pace—as many as 55 a week, according to Roy Behrens, a professor of art at the University of Northern Iowa, whose work focuses on camouflage. With the success of the attacks, the U-boats widened their attack and began targeting civilian ships, like the liner Lusitania, which fell prey to a torpedo in 1915, killing 1,200 of the almost 2,000 people on board.
The Royal Navy tasked British marine painter Norman Wilkinson with finding a way to protect the ships by concealment, Behrens says. Wilkinson studied the request, and told the navy it needed to rethink its strategy. According to Behrens, Wilkinson told the British brass, “You can’t hide a ship. You need to make it hard to hit, not hard to see.”
At the time, pre-radar, aiming torpedoes was an arduous task that took minutes to complete. Submariners raised the periscope and left it up just long enough to gather information about the size, speed, and direction of the ship they stalked. “When they put the periscope up, it could only stay up 30 seconds, because it made a wave and the British ships could go after it,” Behrens says.
After they dropped the periscope, crew members would begin calculating where to aim the torpedo based on estimations of direction, speed, and ship size. (Think slide rules.) Then they had to turn the submarine to aim it to where their calculations suggested the ship would be.
With all this in mind, Wilkinson designed paint jobs that were distorted checkerboards of black and white, with curves that, for example, mimicked waves and distorted the perception of length, height, and movement. These designs created optical confusion, making it harder to tell the target ship’s size and direction—key parts of the targeting calculations. Then Wilkinson recruited house painters and artists to implement the designs. Artist Edward Wadsworth was among them, and one of his most recognized works is a painting of a Dazzle ship.
The Dazzle technique was arresting and weird—but also, post-war studies showed, it worked. According to Claudia Covert, a special collections librarian at the Rhode Island School of Design, “The 3,000 ships painted with Dazzle were less likely to be hit, and when they were hit, it was in less vital parts of the ship.”
The British had gotten quite good at Dazzle painting by the time the US entered the war in 1917. Wilkinson was dispatched to the US to help develop its Dazzle painting program, and by the war’s end, Covert says, about 2,000 US ships were dazzled.
“The US adopted Dazzle painting as camouflage, but in a very American way,” she notes. “Where the British saw this as a kind of large art project and each ship had a unique design, the Americans created a catalog of plans, then sent the plans to Eastman Kodak for testing.” A physicist at Eastman Kodak built models and hand painted them, and then conducted a periscope test in tanks of water with a variety of marine backgrounds.
The approved, tested designs went to the government printing office, and identical sets of plans were sent to 13 ship districts that were charged with the task of painting the designs onto the vessels. The entire effort was top secret, Covert says. Whether the plans were destroyed to protect that secrecy or were just tossed away as Dazzle became obsolete, only two sets of the design plans exist today—one in the National Archives, and the other at RISD.
At the start of World War II, the US and British briefly revived Dazzle painting. But they’d also begun escorting merchant and passenger ships in convoys of heavily armed gunships and, Behren says, surface vessels had become adept at finding and sinking submarines. In the Pacific theater, some observers believed, the dazzled ships actually attracted Japanese kamikaze pilots.
And so the sun set on Dazzle. Today, the device has a distinct period feel. After all, it arrived on the scene just a few years after the 1913 Armory Show introduced Americans—who were still grooving on realist art—to abstract and experimental art movements like fauvism, cubism, and futurism. Camouflage was, in the realm of military tactics, kind of avant garde as well: It taught the perspective that design was not only about aesthetics, but also could have a life-saving function. Dazzle no longer fills that bill, but the San Diego e-paper installation hints that it just might have other applications we haven’t yet imagined.
Oh! Sorry to call you back from this 20th century reverie—but it looks like the cars on I-5 are finally moving again.
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Why the name Erlkönig?
During the 1950s, Oswald and Heinz-Ulrich Wieselmann published unsolicited in the auto magazine “Car, engine and sport“Photographs of camouflaged vehicles. The manufacturers felt hurt, because the first time the small sensation was a large audience and at the same time competitor presents. So far, these have been unproven and unpublished recordings. Wieselmann and Oswald published the photographs under the heading "Erlkönig“In a separate section.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had to serve because of his ballad of the same name. From this point on, all test vehicles adorned themselves as "Erlkönige". The verse "Who rides so late through night and wind"? has been changed to "Who is driving so quickly through rain and wind?“The manufacturers of the time have since made every effort to admit both the competition and the journalists with the“ Erlkönigen ” irritate. The aim was not to let anything about the technology and design leak out from random snapshots. The automobile industry thus took over the camouflage of the warships of the time in order to adapt the shape and equipment of its own vehicles encode.
Photographing a “Erlkönig” these days?
In order to be able to photograph test vehicles nowadays, high-quality cameras are available that are built into conventional smartphones. These can capture high-resolution images of current test vehicles more often and more easily than was possible years ago. The manufacturers are therefore working on increasingly sophisticated camouflage films.
Is Wilkinson Still Attractive Today?
However, the dazzle pattern is not just used to disguise vehicles these days. With a combination of Surfboard and spy suit Sharks should be irritated and surfers should be protected from shark attacks. Even 100 years after the invention of the artist Norman Wilkinson, the designers are still relying on the patterns he created.
At the end. A Erlkönig is a prototype of a vehicle that is supposed to be camouflaged. Manufacturers try to keep the vehicles and their actual appearance a secret. Photojournalists are hunters: Their goal is to uncover the secret of the vehicles ahead of time and to sell the photographs profitably to the tabloid press as well as to specialist magazines.
Summary information on the subject of Erlkönig cars:
- Erlkönige should in particular disguise the body design during test drives.
- Goethe's poem gives the term "Erlkönig" its name.
- first release was a Mercedes Benz 180.
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