Why you should care
Because war sometimes imitates art, and vice versa.
The man was no fan of the modern stuff. Despite being a very successful artist, Norman Wilkinson rejected the bold, contrasting colors and aggressive geometry of the cubists, preferring to stick to his very realistic naval battles and idyllic landscapes. But that didn’t mean turning his back on new ideas altogether: In fact, while sweeping the English channel for mines in 1917 as a British naval lieutenant, Wilkinson had a modernist revelation: The 38-year-old imagined dancing, strangely curved lines, jagged geometric figures and lots of color. But unlike Picasso, who aimed to evoke emotion with colors and shapes, Wilkinson wanted to “dazzle” the enemy and win the war.
The Cambridge-born painter is credited with creating one of the most innovative and visually stunning defense strategies of World War I: dazzle camouflage. Other artists and scientists like British zoologist Joseph Graham Kerr proposed similar ideas, but Wilkinson’s idea prevailed. Designed to confuse rather than hide, dazzle camo used bold, contrasting colors and expertly placed geometric forms to throw off German U-boat gunners.
If the perception of heading, range and speed could be distorted, then target interception becomes very much harder.
Dr. Nick Scott-Samuel
For gunners to hit their targets — often as far as 1,900 meters away — they had to anticipate exactly where their targets would be on impact. Measurements had to be done quickly because gunners had to drop their periscope in under 30 seconds to avoid giving away their own positions. Dazzle camouflage played off these time pressures, using optical illusion to throw off enemy measurements.
“The original aim of dazzle camouflage was to make [the gunner’s] task even harder,” says Dr. Nick Scott-Samuel, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Bristol and a dazzle camouflage researcher. “If the perception of heading, range and speed could be distorted, then target interception becomes very much harder.” All three of these factors could theoretically be upset by dazzle patterns, he explains. Bold curves in the front of the dazzled ship created false bow waves, patterns at the bow and stern confused which end of the ship was being viewed, and expertly placed shapes on smoke stacks could suggest the ship was approaching from another direction.
Dazzle camo may sound eccentric today, but it was far from the craziest form of ship concealment the desperate Allied forces entertained. German U-boat technology was devastatingly efficient, and with the Kaiser’s January 1917 declaration that all ships, including civilian vessels, in the war zone be torpedoed, the Allies were ready to try anything. This included inventor Thomas Alva Edison’s proposed plan of disguising ships as islands by using tarps and trees.
But unlike other ill-fated camouflage ideas, dazzle camo seemed to work. It even got the better of King George V, who was stumped by a scale model simulation of it in October 1917. In May, just five months earlier, Wilkinson had been granted permission to test his idea on the HMS Industry, the first ship to be painted in “dazzle” style. The small ship fooled coast guards charged with guessing its location, resulting in the Admiralty commissioning 50 dazzled troop ships, a number that rose to 4,000 by the end of the war. Every dazzle ship was covered in a unique color and pattern formation to avoid German gunners from sussing the patterns. Artists, set designers and sculptors all contributed by coming up with ever new and confusing themes.
The general public, used to the austere gray of traditional battleships, were stunned by the vibrantly colored vessels that littered every British port. Dazzle became a cultural fascination, even inspiring the world of fashion. On March 12, 1919, the Chelsea Arts Club held a wartime fundraiser called the Dazzle Ball at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Attendees dressed in avant-garde evening wear with fabric mimicking the bold geometry and colors of the camouflage. In fact, “razzle dazzle,” as it was known in the U.S., became so popular that Pablo Picasso, once quoted as saying that “great artists steal,” claimed that he was the creator of the innovative camouflage.
As popular as dazzle camo became, the jury is still out on its effectiveness. Dazzled ships were about 11 percent less likely than those without the art to be struck or sunken by torpedoes. But “there’s no reliable contemporary evidence that dazzle worked,” says Scott-Samuel. Still, dazzling attempts to conceal planes and troops in wartime continued well into World War II. But battleships were never again painted in the full flamboyance of World War I.
Today, it’s seen by scholars as a fascinating collision of pre- and postwar sensibilities; the erratic freedom and experimentation of the first decade of the 20th century met with the stunned sobriety of war. But one modern ship is painted in the style of Wilkinson’s vision — a superyacht designed by pop art sculptor Jeff Koons, and it sails the high seas under the name Guilty.