Friday, 7 November 2008

Art&War: Dazzle Ships

During WW1, the British came up with the idea of painting optical patterns onto their war ships. This practice spread to many of the allies. These were called "Dazzle Ships" (or "Razzle Dazzle ships" in the US) and were almost an anti-camouflage. The patterns made it difficult to figure out how large the ships were or how fast they were moving.

Why go to all this trouble? Because torpedos were fired according to where the ship would be when it hit. If it looked like the ship had 3 hulls or all you saw in the periscope was wavy lines, it made the ships harder to fire on.

Edward Wadsworth was a prominent figure in Wyndham Lewis' Vorticism art movement, a short lived futurist off-shoot in England that splintered rather quickly due to WW1 nabbing pretty much everyone involved. Edward Wadsworth was no exception. Although his job was to design these wacky patterns on the ships.

This is the french cruiser Gloire:

Unfortunately, there are no color photographs of these vessels. But... there are plans:

At first artists were commissioned to design individual ships. As the war continued and costs had to be cut, the best designs were repeated.

And in an art imitating life imitating art turnaround, Edward Wadsworth painted paintings of these ships that he designed the paintings on! The most famous is this:


Captain John Konrad has a really short and sweet breakdown of Razzle Ships.
Jeff Koons just designed a "Razzle Yacht." It's named "Guilty," and if that's guilty of being ugly... I'd have to agree! I'm not a huge Jeff Koons fan, btw. Although it looks perfect for lounging on and blasting some Christopher Cross. Sweet.

Here's another awesome futuristic/cubistesque/abstractish painting by Edward Wadsworth:

A bunch of his prints are up in The Met's "Rhythms of Modern Live: British Prints 1914-1939." It's really awesome, and if you're into printing, you'll go nuts because most are hand-made. Definitely check it out if you can, it's going to be gone in December.

After WW1, his ideals (and much of the futurists and/or vorticists) about machines and industrial society were tainted by the death of friends and the brutality of war. He became a more realistic painter, then migrated toward the surreal and the symbolic.

Nautical themes haunted his paintings until he died.

Oh, and I can't forget OMD. Yes, Orchestral Manooovres in the Dark had a total bomb with their album "Dazzle Ships" in 1983. I guess the cover couldn't dodge the torpedo of critics headed its way.

How about we get their sweet pop sensibilities to ease us out of this broadcast and into a world less fraught with torpedos and war.

from: Dazzle Ships


Nephew of Gloire's sailor said...

There is a colour painting by Vivian Pitchforth of the Gloire at

Ambassador MAGMA said...

That is such a beautiful painting! It's so awesome to see different perspectives. The Gloire is definitely my favorite.

It's no wonder that artists were inspired by razzle ships. Apparently watching fleets leaving the harbors was quite an eye-catching event!

I wonder how many ships (i.e. percentage-wise) of the ships were painted? Supposedly there were a few in WW2... but I haven't found any evidence. Yet!

Nephew of gloire's sailor, do you know who designed the pattern?

Thanks for sharing!

Ambassador MAGMA said...

By "ships of the ships" I meant "ships." Uh, yeah.

Pak Joni said...

My loved uncle Albert is dead, and I cannot get information from him. He was a hand in the merchant navy (Normandie transatlantic liner) put on military duty during the war. I guess he did not care for modern art and designers too much. Do you know that the sailors called that camouflage “l’accident de chemin de fer” (the rail accident) for its likeness to a pile-up of wagons? I will browse some sailors’ blogs to see if I can get more information. Sadly, most sailors of the Gloire are dead now. There is certainly some information filed in the French Navy archives, but these archives are not easy to go through. I will see what I can do.

You may see another (unpublished) picture of the Gloire at

This picture is under copyright © Photo Marius Bar, 8 place Marie Curie, F-83100 Toulon

It was a pleasure to rekindle the memory of Uncle Albert.

Pak Joni

Ambassador MAGMA said...

Wow! Yes, the Gloire is definitely my favorite ship. I didn't even think that the sailor's would think they looked like a "rail accident." Ha!

I wonder how effective this really was?

It's great to hear from you!

Thanks for checking it out!

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