Camouflage at the Imperial War Museum

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There‘s more to camouflage than initially meets the eye, as we discover at a comprehensive exhibition on the subject opens at the Imperial War Museum

  • Camouflage at the Imperial War Museum

    Spotted: 'HM Transport Mauretania entering Sandon Half-tide Dock, Liverpool' by L Campbell Taylor, 1919 © IWM

  • When told that the Imperial War Museum’s latest exhibition was to be on the uninspiring topic of camouflage, my first instinct was: Blimey, that sounds dull. Trust the IWM to prove me wrong, and how. Where we might think camouflage means more khaki than Camden High Street, the IWM thinks pictures of a naked Lee Miller, advice from Dr Jonathan Miller, fake German tree trunks, cubism, frogs, rubber feet, Andy Warhol and Joe Strummer’s trousers. Can anybody doubt that this is the best museum in London for temporary exhibitions?

    ‘The idea had been floating around the museum for a few years,’ explains IWM historian James Taylor. ‘It was really given fresh impetus when Jonathan Miller approached us saying he’d had a similar idea. He’s exhibition advisor, he’s a zoologist and also interested in psychology, which taps into camouflage. It has evolved over millions of years with animals, but with man it’s something you put on or take off for different reasons, hiding yourself, disguising yourself or to draw attention to yourself.’

    To avoid turning the exhibition space into ‘an army-surplus store’, as Laura, the press officer, puts it, the exhibition is split into four themes – conceal, distort, deceive, advertise – allowing it to follow a conceptual path rather than a linear chronology. This also allows the exhibition to be all-encompassing, as it moves from looking at the influence of modernist artists on the early camouflage units in the First World War to the impact of camouflage on the fashion industry in 2007. As ever, the experience is as entertaining as it is educational, with the IWM striking a balance between the two that eludes most other London museums. To ensure that was the case, although Jonathan Miller was given a non-executive curator role, the IWM always had the last word on what was to feature. ‘There are varying degrees of consultation, but we always have the final say,’ explains Taylor. ‘We hold the strings.’

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    Subtle: WWI German steel helmet © IWM

    The exhibition starts with the work of early camoufleurs, in particular two French artillerymen who served in the same regiment and came to the same conclusion (unbeknownst to each other) that the arrival of aerial reconnaissance meant forces behind home lines had to become a lot better at hiding themselves.

    ‘Both men were artists and they looked into how you could fracture the surface of a gun in order to break up its outline and make it unrecognisable,’ says Taylor. ‘They went for painted tarpaulins thrown over guns and as a result of these experiments, a camouflage unit was formed in February 1915 to serve the whole French army. This unit was heavily influenced by cubism – they could see how you could use the techniques of cubism and apply them as a function, so they become design. Its ideas quickly spread.’

    An adjacent display looks at the concurrent influence of naturalists, who had been studying protective colouration in animals and fish since the eighteenth century. ‘The army, by and large, weren’t interested in this,’ says Taylor. ‘And so the naturalists became frustrated that artists played the dominant role in camouflage development.’

    After a breathtaking display on ‘dazzle’, Norman Wilkinson’s flawed but beautiful scheme for disguising British ships from attack by painting them with a series of disruptive patterns designed to confuse U-boat commanders into mistaking the direction in which the ships were heading, the exhibition goes on to look at other forms of deception. This includes such things as model tree trunks that the Germans – who ‘didn’t develop a camouflage unit until the end of the war, but were instinctively good at it’ – planted in no man’s land to use as observation posts and rubber feet developed by British intelligence in World War II to mask giveaway imprints of boots left in sand after secret landings. Here you’ll also find a ‘rupert’, the name given to the fake paratroopers dropped in Normandy on D-Day to confuse the enemy, as well as an image of model and photographer Lee Miller daubed in camouflage paint, photographed by her husband, surrealist and World War II camoufleur Roland Penrose. Much of this is replicated in the excellent accompanying book by Tim Newark.

    After a row of ‘disruptive pattern uniforms’ from different armies around the world (including some terrifying sniper suits), the exhibition concludes with a look at how camouflage was appropriated first by the protest movement during the Vietnam War, and then by popular culture in general (hence Joe Strummer’s trousers). As Taylor points out, camouflage is now ubiquitous: ‘We only have a few examples of the first disruptive pattern uniforms, but if I walked outside now I’d bump into ten people wearing different forms of camouflage in the first five minutes.’
    Taylor wouldn’t even have to go outside. For the duration of the exhibition, the IWM shop will be stocking an exclusive range of Maharishi camouflage T-shirts. Fashion and war have rarely made such comfortable bedfellows.

    Camouflage’ opens on Mar 23 and runs until Nov 18. Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, SE1 (020 7416 5320) Lambeth North tube. Open daily 10am-6pm. Adm £7, concs £6, under-16 free.

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