In World War I, military ships were often painted with “dazzle camouflage”: zany, complex patterns, glaring colors, and geometric shapes designed to confuse the enemy.
This summer, on the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, Dazzle ships have made a comeback on the rivers of Liverpool and London. Commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool, and the WWI centenary arts organization 14-18 NOW, two World War I-era ships have been “dazzled” by two prominent artists: German sculptor Tobias Rehberger and Venezuelan kinetic and op-artist Carlos Cruz-Diez.
Rehberger has painted an HMS President, a 1918 model that was used during World War I. The vessel is covered in an optical illusion-esque pattern of gray and black. It makes the facade look confusingly three-dimensional. Like a bunch of industrial metal pipes. Rehberger’s sculptural work often channels the same bright colors and jagged geometries as the dazzle style–in 2009, he created a café based entirely on the principles of dazzle pattern.
Cruz-Diez’s ship looks distinctly less threatening: he painted a historic pilot ship, the Edmund Gardner, in an eye-popping Rasta-flag color scheme of red, yellow, green, and black stripes. It channels the artist’s signature use of super-saturated color and playful patterns. A time-lapse video, above, shows his dazzling unfold.
In a sense, by being appropriated by contemporary artists, dazzle has come full circle–Picasso claimed dazzle had its roots in Cubist influence. It’s odd to think that such a wild aesthetic was first used for such gruelingly practical purposes, if you can call war practical. Evidence of dazzle’s success as a defense tactic was mixed at best, and it was more or less phased out by World War II. Now, the designs have come back to remind us, quite literally, of the dazzling role ships played in England’s survival during the war.