Shaping Ships

By Laszlo Muntean 

Walking along London’s Victoria Embankment one cannot help
but notice a UFO, in this case an unidentified floating object. Upon closer
inspection (and use of reason) the object reveals itself as a ship featuring a
variety of forms and colors painted all over its hull and superstructure. The
ship is the HMS President, built in
1918, and covered with “dazzle painting” by German artist Tobias Rehberger in
July last year.


Besides the HMS
two other ships have received similar treatment by renowned artists
Peter Blake and Carlos Cruz-Diez as part of the commemorations of the 100th
anniversary of World War I. For dazzle painting is a type of camouflage used
primarily by the British and the American navy during the Great War.

If camouflage is meant to conceal an object, how can
something so spectacular serve this purpose? Indeed, dazzle painting is the
opposite of camouflage that allows an object to blend into its environment. With
the growing threat of submarine attacks navy officials soon realized the
impossibility of concealing any vessel at the high seas. What seems like a
counterproductive attempt at camouflage, the role of dazzle painting was
nothing else but to disrupt the shape of a ship so as to make it difficult to
identify its size, speed, and course.

By no means a surprise, many Cubist artists soon found
themselves in the ranks of the navy, the army. Paul Klee, for instance, painted
camouflage on German airplanes, while the English vorticist Edward Wadsworth produced
a series of paintings depicting dazzle painted ships in harbor, drawing on his
wartime experience as a camoufleur.


Whether the patterns that they designed had ever
managed to dazzle the eyes of the enemy is debatable. By World War II, with the
advance of aerial warfare, the heyday of dazzle painting was already over. For
an in-depth study of the subject consult the works of professor of graphic
design Roy Behrens, who has written extensively on the intersections of art and
camouflage. The trend known as “Razzle Dazzle,” however, rolled on into the
roaring ‘20s in the form of fashion. The June 15, 1919 issue of the New York Tribune, for instance, features
a photograph of three women wearing dazzle-patterned swimsuits as “the newest

With Rehberger’s re-shaping of the HMS President dazzle painting has
acquired a commemorative function. His design is, however, more intricate than the
ones suggested by photographs of the same ship in 1918. What appears as a maze
of pipes and ducts seems to expose the ship’s interior from multiple
perspectives. David Kew’s short film Dazzle
Ship London
uses Rehberger’s project as a platform to delve into the
interrelation of art and camouflage. In its dazzling appearance the ship can be
visited until 31 July 2015.  

Image credits: via and