World War I Warships Were Protected By This Cubist Camouflage

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.

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.”

Courtesy of Rick Williams for E Ink

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.

Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty images

“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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