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False Colors: Art, Design, and Modern Camouflage (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 10, Number 2, April 2003
pp. 402-404 | 10.1353/mod.2003.0035

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Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 402-404

False Colors: Art, Design, and Modern Camouflage. Roy R. Behrens. Dysart, IA: Bobolink Books, 2002. Pp. 207. $22.95 (paper).

Roy Behren's book suggests and resolves the following puzzle: what is the common thread linking Gertrude Stein, a duck, a magician, Lewis Carroll, Andy Warhol, a pickpocket, Dada, a WWI battleship, and Pablo Picasso? The thread, we learn, is a mutual relationship to the foundations of military camouflage design, and this relationship is revealed in a process as eclectic and abundant as the puzzle components might imply. The book begins with a reference to Kurt Vonnegut's 1988 novel Bluebeard, which is based on a little-known fact that is also Behrens's main subject: during World Wars I and II, artists of all kinds, including sculptors, theater set designers, and Cubist painters, served their countries by designing camouflage.

We know from Fascism's relationship with Futurism and Realism, for example, that art and war are not such strange bedfellows as we'd like to think. Art used in the service of war was the subject of two recent exhibitions about the Nazi "aesthetic": "Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics, and Hitler's Early Years in Vienna 1906-1913" at the Williams College Museum of Art, and "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" at The Jewish Museum in New York. But Behrens, a graphic designer and professor of design and design history, addresses a less troublesome aspect of the subject—art in the service of national, primarily Allied, defense. Behrens has published extensively on diverse subjects in modern visual and literary culture, and this book about the origins and design of military camouflage stems primarily from his work in perception theory, an avocation that has involved him in, among other things, a long-time correspondence with the grand homme of perceptual psychology, Rudolf Arnheim.

More than a history of French, American, British, Russian and German camoufleurs, False Colors is a study of camouflage in the broader context of perception. In other words, the reader comes to understand just how and why camouflage was believed to work as visual protection. The content of each chapter moves between modern art history, natural history, linguistics, etymology, modern military strategy, perception theory, magic, semiology, comedy, and Gestalt theory. And—suitable to the content they augment—the black and white illustrations are diverse, including photographs, cartoons, design motifs, and perceptual puzzles. But Behren's amplitude of concerns is highly structured, both editorially and visually. On every page, he asserts his pedagogical leaning, providing a lesson in design layout that includes a cracker jack prize in each outside margin: an adjunct quotation or two that reinforces the main premise while adding entertainment value—two essentials of both good design and good writing (and good teaching, as well).

In chapter one, Behrens sets the stage with a discussion of perceptual psychology. Drawing on the theories of Arnheim, Max Wertheimer, and György Kepes, he discusses the principles of visual organization that involve an "instinctive grouping process called 'unit forming'" (14, 15). He then relates these principles—which are also closely tied to modernist art criticism—to the praxis of design. The relationship is demonstrated through discussions of, among other things, advertising layout, the disruptive strategies of Dada, and the synthetical work of Frank Lloyd Wright, all of which involve a negotiation between visual complexity and visual order. All involve, too, a connection between art (or anti-art in the case of Dada) and real life concerns. In this way, Behrens directly relates perceptual principles and their various manifestions in the art-world to camouflage as a conflation of art and life. In the next chapter, the focus shifts to another perceptual phenomenon: "countershading," or the natural law of disguise described by the American artist Abbott H. Thayer in his 1909 book, Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom. Recognizing the importance of figure-ground blending (a concept based on the principles outlined in chapter one of False Colors) and its potential military application, Thayer applied it to model ships, employing both countershading and the ultimately more effective phenomenon of disruptive coloration, which he called "razzle-dazzle."

During the two World...



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