‘I well remember at the beginning of the war,’ Gertrude Stein wrote in 1938, ‘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.’ Stein went on to suggest that the entire First World War had been an exercise in Cubism. Hailing Picasso as the first to register an epoch-making change in the ‘composition’ of the world, she concluded that a great convulsion had been necessary to awaken the masses to his discovery: ‘Wars are only a means of publicising the thing already accomplished.’
Stephen Kern has pointed out that the Cubist quality of camouflage was quite widely perceived during the war. The artist Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola, who was one of the forces behind France’s camouflage initiative, claimed to have used Cubist means to ‘deform objects totally’ and deliberately to have employed avant-garde artists in his section de camouflage, where they proved adept at ‘denaturing any form’. The Expressionist painter Franz Marc was among the artists who worked to the same end on the German side and, as Roy Behrens points out in this flamboyantly peculiar Encyclopedia of Camouflage, ships painted in the disruptive ‘dazzle’ schemes developed by the British artist Norman Wilkinson were said to resemble ‘Cubist paintings on a colossal scale’.
Yet the First World War was not merely history’s way of confirming Picasso’s genius, and the emergence of strategic camouflage didn’t represent a simple triumph of avant-gardism. Guirand de Scévola had entered the war as a well-known society portrait painter (an example currently advertised for sale is entitled Princess with Orchid). He is said to have retained his prewar habit of wearing white kid gloves even while presiding over huge camouflage workshops. Dunoyer de Ségonzac, another member of the French camouflage section, was known for still lifes featuring eggs, bottles and cabbages, but not distorted guitars of Picasso’s Cubist kind. Some of his prewar landscapes linger over red-tiled roofs – sun-baked, pleasantly irregular and resting in a conventional perspective of the kind now associated with the gîte industry.
The man who is more persuasively claimed as the ‘father of camouflage’ was another successful portraitist and landscape artist. The American Abbott Thayer (1849-1921) was well known for his ‘angel’ paintings, in which he added feathery white wings to portraits of girls and young women. His influence in the early days of strategic camouflage derived from the fact that this New Hampshire conservationist, who admired Thoreau and revered the natural world as ‘God’s studio’, had developed a more scientific interest in plumage and animal coloration. Insisting that this aspect of natural history could be properly understood only by artists and not by zoologists (‘The entire matter has been in the hands of the wrong custodians’) he elaborated in the 1890s his own theory of protective concealment. Thayer demonstrated how stripes and spots could be used to disrupt perception of overall contours, and established that ‘countershading’ – here described as ‘the gradual darkening of a creature’s skin or fur from its light underbelly towards the dorsal region on its back’ – could have the effect of cancelling shadows and flattening a creature’s appearance.
As various commentators, including Stephen Jay Gould, have confirmed, Thayer’s theory of countershading – illustrated in DPM with images of light-bellied jet planes as well as sharks – proved that artists could bring genuine insight to this field. Thayer greatly overstated his case, however. Animal coloration has multiple functions, including ostentatious display and mimicry of other species, but for him concealment was everything. He stubbornly insisted that even the ‘most gorgeous costumes’ were ‘climaxes of obliterative coloration’, and the zeal with which he stuck to this conviction against all evidence to the contrary can be seen in the exposition of his theories published under the name of his son Gerald Thayer, Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909). The frontispiece reproduces Peacock in the Woods, which Abbott Thayer painted to illustrate his theory that the male peacock’s plumage enabled it to disappear into a suitably sylvan background (‘the spread tail looks also very much like a shrub bearing some kind of fruit or flower’). Thayer applied the same defiantly overstated argument to roseate spoonbills and flamingos, insisting that their pinkness, too, had evolved in accordance with the ‘laws of optical illusion’. He conducted his own muddy experiments to prove that a passing alligator might easily overlook a flamingo if it happened to be standing against a pink sunrise, and he made similar claims about the warpaint and eagle feathers worn by native American warriors. His critics, who included the former president and amateur naturalist Teddy Roosevelt, were unsparing in their derision.
In 1917, Thayer wrote to Franklin Roosevelt urging that responsibility for the development of camouflage schemes should be put in the hands of artists because they alone could claim true expertise in ‘visibility’. By then, his ideas had been taken up by members of the newly formed American Camouflage Corps, some of whom had been members of the New York Camouflage Society, a civilian initiative originally based in a studio in Greenwich Village. Thayer had also visited Europe in 1915. According to one story not recounted in these impressively erratic volumes, he was due to meet army authorities in London in order to exhibit a prototype camouflaged garment for snipers. Thayer, who was suffering from nervous tension at the time and was probably also fed up with being mocked and derided, pulled out of the meeting at short notice, leaving John Singer Sargent to attend on his own. The British generals are said to have been horrified when Sargent opened Thayer’s valise. According to Richard Murray of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the prototype garment resembled an old hunting jacket, trailing strips of coloured cloth and daubed with patches of colour that reflected Thayer’s interest in harlequin costumes. It’s not clear whether the British generals objected to the scruffiness, the disruptive coloration or the cowardice that some military traditionalists still believed was at the root of the camoufleur’s new systems of deception. Sargent was apparently so embarrassed by their reaction that he was reluctant even to touch the thing with his stick.
The British artist Solomon J. Solomon (1860-1927) began his experiments with camouflage on the first day of the war. Created out of dyed butter muslin and mounted on bamboo canes in his mother-in-law’s garden in St Albans, his prototypes convinced him that it would be possible to screen trenches from enemy surveillance. Approached by Solomon, the War Office ordered further trials at Woolwich dockyards. The results were encouraging, but it took him many months to convince the military authorities of the advantages of employing artists. In a letter published in the Times on 27 January 1915, he pointed out that ‘invisibility is an essential in modern strategy.’ Since ‘to be invisible to the enemy is to be non-existent to him,’ he urged that the principle of countershading should be applied to the army’s khaki uniforms. This ‘more scientific’ adjustment would mean ‘clothing the lower limbs in a much lighter stuff than the body, and the cap and the shoulders’. Solomon also declared that the existing cap was conspicuous against most backgrounds, and ‘a most excellent target for the marksman’. It should be replaced with a helmet-shaped version, fitted with a visor that could be lowered to break up the visible outline of the face. As for the short tunic, this cast a highly visible shadow on the legs: better a long coat that could be buttoned back for marching and stiffened to reduce visible flapping. Against ‘colour uniformity’, Solomon saw advantages in the ‘broken effect’ that would be achieved if the men in each unit wore different coloured coats and tunics – winter blue, grey-green, khaki.
Having submitted his critique of the existing uniform, Solomon declared that artists like himself would certainly be willing, if approached, to place their ‘knowledge and experience at the disposal of the authorities’. The generals, however, apparently felt they had more urgent problems to address. The only printed response came from a self-styled ‘artist and big game-shot’, who claimed that his experiences of stalking deer in Scotland had shown him the importance of ‘breaking up the outline’ rather than just trying to make uniforms tone in with the background. This fellow vouched that a man could disappear while lying still in a peat bog – just as long as he was wearing black boots, a stone-coloured cap, a waistcoat the colour of a peat hag and knickerbockers as green as grass.
It was not until December 1915 that Solomon was asked to visit the French camouflage workshop at Amiens, and to join others in developing a British camouflage project. Although he was an opponent of Cubism and its avant-garde cousins, Solomon recognised that the camoufleur must respond to an abrupt mutation in the geography of warfare. Thanks to the coming of aerial photography, as he would later declare on the opening page of his book Strategic Camouflage (1920), ‘“The Other Side of the Hill” no longer exists.’ A photograph taken from 12,000 or 14,000 feet would reveal everything to the trained eye (‘even a track made by the passing of a few men over a field’). Under these circumstances, ‘art alone could screen men and intentions where natural cover failed.’
Solomon and his colleagues came up with a grass-threaded fishing net, which would, he claimed, quickly become the ‘universal camouflage’ material for French as well as British troops. Assisted by a carefully chosen band of scene painters from Covent Garden and the Drury Lane Theatre, Solomon also produced steel-cored observation posts that resembled slender willow trees. Other effects were achieved with wire-netting, dyed raffia, papier-mâché and plaster of Paris, the last proving especially useful in the construction of dummy heads that could be pushed up over a trench parapet to tempt enemy snipers into revealing their positions. Later, he worked at the secret Elveden Explosives Area in Suffolk, devising schemes that would enable Britain’s new tanks – which would later be dubbed ‘Cubist slugs’ – to blend into the landscape. He was much concerned about the shadow cast by the high prows of these lozenge-shaped monsters. One of the paintings made by Sargent on the Western Front shows a tank crew reposing in this cool patch of shade, relieved to be out of the ‘pocket hell’ that was the interior of their machine. For Solomon, however, the area of darkness under the tank’s belly reflected a fatal design flaw that made the new war machines visible for miles around. He tried to reduce the shadow by covering the rectangular edges of the tank with his grass-threaded netting. He also recommended the use of smoke to shroud their advance, and contrived colour schemes to be painted directly onto their sides.
Like Guirand de Scévola, Solomon was repeatedly frustrated by the attitudes of the military command. He was mockingly addressed as ‘Mr Artist’ when he visited GHQ in France, and felt blocked in his attempts to ascertain the terrain in which tanks were likely to be deployed. At Elveden, he suffered considerable loss of prestige when he started painting tanks himself, rather than ordering his underlings to undertake this decidedly manual labour. In 1913 Solomon had visited Suffolk to paint portraits of the Cadogans at Culford, but now here he was wearing overalls, as one staff officer sneered, and sloshing gallons of paint onto half a dozen tanks a day. The trainee tank soldiers appear to have remembered his designs not so much as Cubist attempts to confound enemy observers, but as ludicrous ‘pink sunsets’ that would soon disappear under the flying mud of the Western Front.
Cubism had no constructive role in the art of camouflage as Solomon conceived it. As a teacher of art before the war, he had warned students to shun ‘poseurs’ and to mistrust the rising power of art exhibitions, which he disliked as generators of spurious fashion. He issued this advice in The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing as Associated with It, a primer published in 1910, the year Roger Fry organised the first London exhibition of Post-Impressionism. Solomon’s mistrust of ‘modernity’ and the ‘overstrange’ would be carried over into the practice of camouflage, where such gestures were all too likely, as he saw it, to prove fatal. (Writing in the periodical World’s Work in April 1920, he asserted that Post-Impressionist patterns, by which he meant ‘masses of colour on big erections’, could easily be distinguished in aerial photographs: far from concealing positions, these chaotic visual antics actually ‘proclaimed aloud the military nature of the object painted’.) His own ‘application of art to war’ was firmly realist. Rather than setting out to denature objects with the help of avant-garde techniques or, for that matter, the ‘amateur art’ expected by a popular imagination that had also ‘come to associate the idea of camouflage with paint’, he insisted that effective camouflage achieved invisibility by an expertly rendered ‘imitation of the ground and the roads it covers’.
A mastery of classical perspective was necessary to a successful ‘imitation of nature’. Yet it was also vital if the camoufleur was to see through the ‘modelled fudge’ created by his enemy counterparts. ‘It is all in the point of view,’ Thayer had said. Solomon rehearsed the argument, as he set out to demonstrate that the German camouflage endeavour was not confined to masking installations along the front line. Using a powerful radiograph projector to light aerial photographs of German-held Flanders villages such as St Pierre Capelle, he studied their minutest detail and, taking his lead from the placing of shadows, saw the entire landscape melt into a massive and expertly realised mise-en-scène. The French camouflage section at Amiens may have produced large-scale illusions, extending, as these volumes tell us, to the vast painting that was ‘raised suddenly on the crest of Messines in June 1917 to simulate an assault of 300 soldiers’, but Solomon now saw something bigger still.
Peering at his brightly-lit photographs through his magnifying glass, he noted shadows that seemed to be cast by fields rather than houses. Strange ‘blisters’ appeared in apparently empty roads, revealing them to be sham structures raised up to cover real roads that were probably teeming with military traffic beneath. Other ‘surprising abnormalities’ included hedges that were actually cleverly disguised cables stitching together illusory stook-dotted fields – components of a huge system of concealment capable of accommodating two divisions while still displaying the ‘normal incidents of the landscape’. As he scrutinised this prodigiously rigged world, Solomon became convinced that the enemy was practising ‘strategic camouflage’ on a ‘colossal’ scale. He wrote to the chief of the general staff, warning that this was what German prisoners meant when they spoke of living underground. But he found it impossible to convince the Allied military hierarchy about the vast and far from Cubist system that Germany had, he was convinced, built up undetected during the winter before the offensive of March 1918. Defeated, he could only shake his head at the ‘fatal and complacent stupidity’ of those who rejected his suggestions only weeks before the Allied armies were suddenly confronted with ‘literally hundreds of thousands of men, coming as it were out of the ground’. It was, he later charged, a case of ‘war prejudice’ blinding the Allied military leadership to ‘the intelligence of the Teuton mind’.
Was Solomon right in claiming that the German camouflage system was extensive, or was he, as the repudiating ‘forces of reaction’ in the War Office plainly believed, the dupe of his own perspectival investigations? The question would preoccupy Solomon himself for years. He would be satisfied to read Erich Ludendorff’s war memoirs, which talked of the Germans screening roads and secreting troops in specially constructed ‘anti-aircraft shelters’, and boasted that forty or fifty divisions had successfully been hidden from the Allies in preparation for the 1918 spring offensive. He would note that, after the German retreat, vast areas of ‘openwork cover’ were found behind the line. These were simple structures made of what Solomon took to be the German version of his own grass-garnished fishing net: large areas south of Arras were found to be covered with wire netting raised to a height of about eight feet and interwoven, as a witness reported, ‘with strips of greenish and biscuit-coloured paper cloth’. Solomon never doubted that the ‘Teutonic’ camoufleurs had been capable of more elaborate works, too. If little trace of these remained, it was probably, he suggested, because the Germans had considered their secret ‘worth keeping for another time’ and destroyed them in the huge fires that were seen burning behind the lines as the enemy forces prepared to withdraw.
After the war, Solomon visited France and Belgium to conduct his own search and claimed to have found ample evidence at St Pierre Capelle. He came across a long-standing and heavily marked timber track that had been completely absent from the photographs, presumably covered by scenic rigging. He found that the great trees along the Bruges road had been felled, presumably to allow this busy supply route to be covered with an empty simulacrum. He came across many hastily abandoned rolls of grey felt paper that could be moulded into any shape if stiffened with plaster of Paris (a bag of which he found lying nearby). Seeking out a house that had ‘lost’ its shadow, thanks, as he had tried to convince the generals, to the raised system of ‘fields’ suspended from it, he found tell-tale fragments of tarred paper still hanging from a green board mounted just below its eaves. Solomon expounded his findings in Strategic Camouflage, in the hope of finally convincing the authorities that ‘the Science of the Interpretation of Aerial Photography’ would be ‘the eye of the Command’ in all future wars. He was rewarded with hostile and mocking reviews (the TLS’s military scribbler ridiculed his artistic contentions as ‘quite fallacious’, concluding: ‘His illustrations are beautiful, but will provoke the mirth of expert air photograph readers’). This more or less official response can only have hastened Solomon’s return to civilian life as portraitist to the British aristocracy and president of the Royal Society of British Artists.
His scarcely noticed vindication took the form of a letter printed in the Irish Times some five months later. After recalling the ‘unfavourable reviews’ accorded Strategic Camouflage by British ‘critics who considered themselves experts’, Lieutenant-Colonel C. Holmes Wilson drew attention to an altogether more appreciative notice that, by ‘an irony of fate’, had just appeared in the German publication Das Technische Blatt. This confirmed the accuracy of Solomon’s findings, and admitted that the colossal camouflage structures he had detected were indeed ‘the very first thing we destroyed on our retreat’. As Holmes Wilson concluded: ‘I take the liberty of putting this matter before you, as I feel that, had Mr Solomon’s views been considered favourably when first put forward, many lives might have been saved.’
On 10 May 1920, a month or so after Solomon used the pages of World’s Work to relaunch his complaint against the War Office, the Conservative Morning Post printed a short report under the heading ‘New Use for Torpedoes’. The weapons that had brought such havoc to shipping in the recent war had found a new, illegal application as ‘submarine whisky carriers’ travelling between Windsor in Canada and Detroit, which was dry thanks to Prohibition. The battery-powered machines were said to travel at a depth of 100 feet, crossing the Detroit River in about five minutes. Three adjusted torpedoes were already in use, with capacities of ten, 15 and 25 gallons respectively, and the smugglers anticipated soon introducing a fourth, much larger model.
In September of the same year, the Daily Herald reported on an encouraging experiment recently carried out in France: snow ploughs had been fitted to a tank, which had then proved capable of clearing a ten-foot-wide path through the drifts blocking a mountain road. This Christian socialist paper also offered its readers an improving story about Krupp, the vast German armaments firm, which was said to be back in production. Employing as many people as it had before the war, the company was reported to have successfully adjusted its workshops to the manufacture not of ‘Berthas’ (named after Bertha Krupp) but of diesel engines, locomotives, air compressors, tractors and cinema projectors. The article was headed ‘Turning swords into ploughshares’.
If the application of art to warfare is one theme in the development of the modern arsenal, this Encyclopedia, conceived and published by the camouflage enthusiast Hardy Blechman, reminds us that the postwar ‘conversion’ of war technologies to civilian usage is another. A number of the technologies of the First World War appeared to be susceptible to such treatment. There was a future for planes, with or without their cameras, but tanks, whose ‘rectangularity’ had so worried Solomon, faced a different struggle for survival. Some were employed suppressing postwar insurrections in Glasgow as well as in Ireland and various colonial locations. Others would end up on summer beaches, competing with donkeys in the business of giving rides.
The camouflage sections had enjoyed moments of popular acclaim on the Home Front. During the war bond campaign, Trafalgar Square was briefly turned into a ‘camouflaged’ village, and a shop in Hackney’s Mare Street drew considerable attention when decked out as a camouflaged trench. Afterwards, however, the camoufleurs’ workshops and expertise were dispersed and their methods largely forgotten. Indeed, the artists and theatre designers who found themselves responsible for camouflage during the Second World War had to rediscover basic techniques from scratch.
It was only after 1945 that camouflage leaked into civilian society in the form of printed fabrics and army surplus garments. Far from being dissolved back into its ‘natural’ or ‘artistic’ constituents, camouflage carried military symbolism into civilian life. It was favoured by the hunter, the code-scrambling hippy, the survivalist, the anti-federalist fantasist. It became the unofficial uniform of diverse malcontents who went off to build shelters, real or symbolic, in the woods of the late 20th century.
The reader of these volumes first encounters Blechman as a bearded traveller clad in a US army ‘woodland’ camouflage outfit, gazing out of his own richly illustrated pages and braced for attack. While touring the Himalayas in his ‘camo’ costume, he was, as he announces in his preface, ‘verbally terrorised’ by a woman from Israel (camouflage uniforms have not been issued by the Israeli Defence Forces since 1968 and, Blechman suggests, have consequently developed strong ‘Palestinian’ associations). He came under fire again when visiting the 2002 Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern. Browsing in the bookshop, he was approached by a man who asked in a ‘venomous’ whisper: ‘Where are the bloodstains?’
Blechman likes blending into the world’s wild places, but he is neither an off-duty militiaman nor an army-surplus maniac lying on his stomach in Savernake Forest to line up a young mother in his gunsights (as the Hungerford killer Michael Ryan did in 1987). He is an ecologically minded clothing designer, who speaks of reclaiming camouflage rather as the community activists of 1968 (the year Blechman was born) used to talk about repossessing the town hall. As the founder and ‘creative director’ of a company called Maharishi, he associates wearing ‘camo’ with conscientious objection and looks forward to ‘nullifying’ the military associations of the many camouflage designs illustrated in his book. Encouraged by the extent to which other items of clothing – he mentions the tie, the T-shirt and the cardigan – have made the journey from military to civilian use, he would like to convert the beauty of camouflage patterns by ‘taking them out of their practical context of concealment in battle’. Across many cultures, as he explains, green is felt to be ‘an inherently “good” colour’. It can reduce stress and ‘engender calm’ among psychiatric patients, and it comes with a long history dating ‘back to mythical figures such as the Green Man’.
Blechman, who started trading from a friend’s floor in Chelsea Harbour but soon moved east to establish his headquarters on Hackney’s Kingsland Road, acquired stocks of surplus utility clothing from the military and British Telecom. To begin with he bought and adjusted stuff he liked – changing the cut, adding screenprints or computerised embroidery – but soon he started to design his own clothes, using synthetic microfibre fabrics to create the ‘combat chic’ on which his success as a seller of streetwear is based. He feels, most ardently, that the military should not be allowed to ‘maintain its dominion over these patterns that were originally influenced by artists’ interpretations of the natural world’. He argues that the more camouflage is used outside the military, the less likely it is that camo-clad civilians like himself will continue to attract abuse.
Six years in the making, Blechman’s Encyclopedia is itself a camouflaged object. At first glance, it looks as if it comes straight out of a military glove compartment. Indeed, it could be a military glove compartment. The two volumes are contained in a large, shadow-casting khaki box, covered with black stencilled numbers that suggest ordnance but turn out to be nothing more explosive than the ISBN. Both are covered in disruptive pattern material, but the larger one, which contains the main analysis of camouflage as it travels from ‘nature’ to ‘military’ and then ‘culture’, is banded in bright orange. This reflects Blechman’s design strategy of ‘negating the practicality of camouflage by combining it with high-visibility fabrics’. The choice of orange may also be connected to his interest in Eastern spiritual traditions, and perhaps even to the way in which the sales and press person at Maharishi, identified only as ‘Suzie’, signs off her emails with the word ‘peace’.
Blechman may think like a spiritual rambler who would prefer to live as he appears in his author photograph – up to his neck in water in some leafy wilderness – but he has done the sensible thing and brought in some expertise. These volumes are the work of a team of in-house researchers, and his ‘contributing writers’ include Michel Aubry, a French artist and professor at the Fine Arts School in Nantes; Roy Behrens, the American author of Art and Camouflage (1981), who is happy to provide a new statement of his findings; and Jean Borsarello, a former French air force doctor, who has been studying camouflage and collecting military specimens from around the world since the late 1950s. Borsarello’s collection forms the basis of the shorter second volume, an illustrated inventory of camouflage used by the military in 107 nations. Colours swirl as the pages turn. The Australian ‘Auscam’ pattern started out as a five-colour woodland camouflage in 1986, but has since given rise to a desert version; a further variation featuring ‘mint green’ was issued to troops in Afghanistan in 2002. Clothes made of Serbia’s ‘purple lizard’ fabric are shown lying at the roadside, having been hastily abandoned by soldiers who hoped to avoid arrest for war crimes. In Zambia, men stand about in fatigues of green with ‘wiggly stripes’ of brown snaking down to their ankles. There is a Boy’s Own-style inventory of camouflage designs in this second volume, but Blechman and his team have done what they can to disorientate it. The photographs are pushed up against pacifist proverbs and ambushed by aboriginal sayings. Many of the camouflage-clad models have been defaced by an American graffiti artist named Kaws. Any remaining impression of military heroism is countered by pictures of gun-toting child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and the famously corrupt President Bongo of Gabon, who is shown wearing a ‘duck hunter’ pattern acquired from South Korea.
Blechman really comes into his own when he cuts loose under the heading ‘culture’. He includes a mottled array of artists who, during the years of the Cold War, laid claim to camouflage, and tried to draw it back into their domain. It’s a pity that this trawl misses the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, who has long employed camouflage in works investigating Western pastoralism and the theme of death in arcadia. Instead, Blechman focuses on the French artist Alain Jacquet, who has used camouflage since the early 1960s, pulling it out of the imagery of France’s colonial wars and hailing it as a ‘new way of seeing’. Jacquet, who uses camouflage to secrete images within images while also incorporating material from Michelangelo and Walt Disney, is here commended for having ‘nullified the military connotations of the disruptive pattern’. In 1966, the Italian Alighiero Boetti framed a stretch of printed camouflage material found in a flea market – drawing attention to the patterns in a fabric that had previously been all about obscurity and escaping notice. Andy Warhol used camouflage in the late 1960s, and returned to it in the last years of his life, painting a red camouflage version of the Last Supper, and a final series of camouflage images in 1986. In this late work, critics have seen camouflage interfused with the lights of ‘psychedelic disco’ and the entire history of Modernism, including the struggle between abstract impressionism and Pop Art, reprised as wallpaper.
Having reviewed the strategies of many artists and architects (including Emile Aillaud, who, in the late 1970s, imposed what is here described as the world’s largest camouflage pattern on 17 high-rise ‘Cloud Towers’ in the Paris suburbs at Nanterre), Blechman and his writers launch into a description of other ‘cultural’ uses of camouflage. These pages become a chaotic exhibition that veers about to include bedsheets, carpets, fashion and advertising imagery, wallpaper, sofas, speaker cabinets, CD covers, skateboards, graffiti art, knickers, computer games and condoms.
Gertrude Stein might have persuaded herself that the First World War was only a vast publicity campaign for the brilliance of Picasso, but Blechman widens the frame, declaring that ‘all soldiers are toys.’ He proceeds to display his extensive collection of camouflaged toys, often exhibited against natural backgrounds featuring fossils, wicker fencing and mossy turf. In one double-page spread, camouflage-wearing toy soldiers are shown erecting a flag bearing the CND emblem over a landscape of barbed wire and rubble: a pacifist reconstruction, as the caption explains, of John Rosenthal’s photograph of marines raising the stars and stripes at Iwo Jima.
Somewhere in this crazy accumulation, which is held together less by argument than by Adobe page-making techniques, the military use of camouflage starts undergoing odd mutations, too. The evidence of the naked eye might appear to be less important in the much proclaimed ‘new age’ of digital warfare, in which fighters rely on heat-sensitive and infra-red sighting systems and do much of their killing on simulated terrains mapped with the help of satellite technologies; yet, as Borsarello points out, military camouflage appears to have proliferated rather than faded away. He points out that armies around the world have invested in various new patterns appropriate to different settings – urban, jungle, desert and snow – and also detects an increasing exploitation of camouflage as a symbolic material that ‘is no longer worn to conceal but to differentiate, show or draw attention to the user’. Blechman, too, remarks that camouflage is increasingly being used both to distinguish elite troops and as a recruiting image. The British army may like to display princes clad in disruptive pattern material, but the US army went one better when it advertised camouflage maternity wear. As Blechman writes, ‘even the US army’ would surely draw up short at sending pregnant women into combat: proof, then, that the ‘symbolism’ of camouflage patterns has become ‘more important than their practical use’.
The armies of the world may be playing the ‘cultural’ game as deliberately as any brand-conscious fashion designer, yet it seems unlikely that Maharishi’s first publication will make its way into many staff college libraries. Dozens of copies, however, are to be found in dpmhi, Blechman’s camouflage-themed shop in Great Pulteney Street, Soho. Here the book is at home among the streetwear: not just Snopants, but jackets, shirts, ornamented sneakers such as the Woodland Maharishi Day Shoe and a loud, street-talking garment called the Rasta Camo Hoody, in which scarlet-traced ‘camo’ is featured as the pattern of the ‘ghetto superstar’ (‘whoever’s livin’ large better wear camouflage’). Disruptively patterned bags are on offer, along with belts, camouflaged origami cranes and mechanically simplified green and black bicycles at £800 a throw.
We might be tempted to ask Blechman what he means by all this, but he is not often to be found on the premises. He might conceivably, an assistant explains, be unearthed at his HQ on Kingsland Road, but he spends a lot of time ‘out of the country’ too. Perhaps he is far away, surrounded by large green leaves in one of the natural world’s last resorts. Or perhaps, as is suggested by another photo in these volumes, he will be found in a park closer to home: a camo-clad Kung Fu fighter standing on his head in an erect and thoroughly post-Cubist position identified as the ‘Shaolin Headstand, representing balance, harmony and subversion’. It is, he says of this maverick re-evaluation of the art of camouflage, a ‘quest’ he is ‘determined to continue’.