The general goal of camouflage is to be invisible. Back during World War I, however, hundreds of Allied ships went to battle painted in bright geometric designs that were anything but subtle. This “dazzle camouflage,” as it was called, was intended to distract and confuse out on the seas, and in a current exhibition at Marc Straus on the Lower East Side, photographer Thomas Bangsted has reimagined this collision between art and war.
Called Mike, the exhibition includes large-scale prints of Bangsted’s painstaking photographs. Each is deceptively simple, seeming like a strange historic capture, yet Bangsted spends up to three years on each piece, layering different exposures into his own reconstruction of time. Everything might seem right for a 1918 wartime photograph down to the vintage rowboat, except the pilot is a guy named Mike hired to pose for just one part of the image.
The ships in the photographs date to the World Wars, but Bangsted turned to archives to remake their dazzle camouflage. It’s a stunning creation, as much an artful deception as the strange military strategy it replicates. Old photographs of dazzle camouflage also seem like an impossibility of playful history, sort of like the (also very real) pink British military jeeps. But the camouflage was a serious practice. World War I was a new kind of battle, one where people charging at each other on horses in sometimes garish outfits was replaced with terrifying technology like machine guns, razor wire, and U-boats.
It’s those German submarines that dazzle camouflage was meant to evade. Out on the ocean where both the water and the sky change color constantly, even a drab grey battleship is going to be spotted in some weather. The dazzle approach, rather than try to hide, makes the distance, speed, and direction of the vessel all hard to determine, especially when several ships are together in a dizzying convoy of stripes, checkers, and swirls. And since a U-boat has to aim ahead of the ship for the torpedo to make contact, this illusion could throw them off.
British artist Norman Wilkinson pioneered the idea with the Royal Navy, but he had help from other artists who were conveniently experimenting with Cubism and other forms of abstraction, such as Edward Wadsworth, a major figure in Vorticism defined by its aggressive sharp geometry. While used sporadically during World War II, dazzle camouflage later went out of fashion. As Sam LaGrone at the U.S. Naval Institute explained in an article on dazzle camouflage: “‘Dazzle’ schemes largely faded from use because there was no clear evidence of their effectiveness, especially against technological advances in radar and rangefinders. ‘Dazzle’ was however credited with boosting morale of crews who took pride in the unique and intimidating appearance of their ship.”
Below are more of Thomas Bangsted’s photographs, as well as historic photographs of the dazzle ships. RISD also has a whole online collection of Dazzle Camouflage plans, showing not just the wild patterns, but the bold colors as well.
Historic photographs of dazzle camouflage:
Thomas Bangsted: Mike continues at Marc Straus Gallery (299 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 16.
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Who Will Decide on the Future of a Miami Native Burial Ground?
Native activists say sacred remains and objects dug up from a Brickell construction site should remain there, but mega-developer Jorge Pérez is pushing back.
How Can a Curator Approach South Asian Futurisms?
How do I acknowledge my shortcomings while reckoning with obscured histories and the exclusion of subaltern narratives in the fine art landscape? A working checklist for curators.
MCA Chicago Presents On Stage: Frictions
Will Rawls, Shamel Pitts | TRIBE, and Barak adé Soleil explore Blackness, queerness, movement, and dance in performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The Complicated Legacy of Camilo Egas
The Ecuadorian painter, a leading figure of Latin America’s Indigenismo art movement, has been both praised and scorned for his representation of Indigenous peoples.
Tom Jones Zeroes in on Ho-Chunk Visibility
“I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful,” says the artist.
Haggerty Museum of Art Presents Tomás Saraceno in Dialogue With Dr. Somesh Roy
The artist and researcher will explore soot’s effects on climate change and public health in this online conversation.
Hundreds of Artworks by NYC Teenagers Go on View at the Met
The talented seventh through twelfth-grade students are recipients of the 2023 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
NYC’s Flatiron Building Sells for a Whopping $190M
The sale to outsider bidder Jacob Garlick puts an end to the protracted legal battle between the iconic skyscraper’s five former owners.
McKnight Visual Artist Fellows Discussion Series at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
The series features 2021 Fellows David Bowen, Mara Duvra, Rotem Tamir, Ben Moren, and Dyani White Hawk in conversation with renowned curators and critics.
The Best Memes Roasting the “We ❤️ NYC” Campaign
A graphic designer on Twitter created a hilarious send-up of the universally reviled logo, and the rest is history.
Did You Know These Museums Were Free for New Yorkers?
The “Free Admission” campaign is advocating to make ticket pricing information more transparent to visitors, who may be confused or misled by institutions’ language.
Gertrude Stein: “I very well remember at the beginning of the war being with Picasso on the boulevard Raspail when the first camouflaged truck passed. It was at night, we had heard of camouflage but we had not seen it and Picasso amazed looked at it and then cried out, yes it is we who made it, that is cubism.”
Comments are closed.