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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Camouflage Art

There is an old, oft-repeated story which may well be true, given its persistence in history, that one day in the winter of 1914, during the First World War, Pablo Picasso and his American mentor, Gertrude Stein, were standing on a Paris street corner watching an American military convoy rolled past, resplendent in a new military camouflage paint job. Picasso is said to have commented, "We did that. That's Cubism." Picasso could take credit for a lot of artistic inventions, but Cubism notwithstanding, camouflage painting was not one of them. Cubism was hard-edged, rectilinear, dull and drab at times perhaps, but other than that, it bore little resemblance to the new "art" of making invisible in the undergrowth, an entire army. Credit (if that is the word) for that goes to a little known American painter by the name of Abbot Handerson Thayer.

A Virgin, 1892-93, Abbot Handerson Thayer,
depicting the artist's children
Thayer was born in 1849 into a prominent New England family. He studied art in Boston and with some success, painted animal portraits there and in New York before going on to study with Jean-Leon Gerome in Paris. Upon returning to this country, his expressive portraits and idealized angels, goddesses, and Madonnas were quite popular, especially with his biggest patron, Albert Freer. With the death of his wife and two young sons, Thayer's work became more melancholy as he searched for the ideal of feminine innocence and sought to raise what he considered the lax the moral standards of the "Gilded Age" through his art. He attached his painting style to the Cult of the Virgin and was a leading exponent in American Symbolist movement. However by 1910, as allegorical and Symbolist painting lost favor, he drifted into obscurity, painting abstract landscapes until his death in 1921.

WW I camouflage as influenced
by Thayer
All of this is very interesting, of course, but ironically, the fact that Thayer is remembered today is the result of his shrewd, though eccentric, efforts to persuade the US military to adopt a pattern of broken shapes to cover not only uniforms, but hardware as well, so that they would be more difficult targets for snipers and field artillery. But the turn-of-the-century war department was not interested.  President Teddy Roosevelt put down his experiments saying, "They were of no more value than putting a raven in a coal scuttle and claiming he is concealed." As is so often the case with such things, it took time and a war to convince the army there might be some legitimacy in Thayer's theories. By the time the Yanks marched into France, his designs could be seen on many of the guns and tanks that accompanied them. However it took another fifty years before GI's began wearing camouflage in Vietnam. Today, if you can't tell the good guys from the bad as your evening news covers the latest in Afghanistan, you can blame Thayer. Everyone from the Russians to al Quaeda are now appropriately garbed in some derivative of this artist's pet brainchild.
Modern-day camouflaged sniper
Camouflage of the urban variety
in Afghanistan today

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