Camouflage Australia: Art, Nature, Science and War

Book Review
Ann Elias, Sydney University Press, 2011

There are some prophetic illustrations in Ann Elias’s detailed study of the work of artists and scientists working in tandem in the Camouflage Unit established by the Australian Department of Home Security during the Second World War. From studies into the camouflage tricks of lizards and fish, to some extraordinary installations in the landscape, the work undertaken by Australian artists uncannily prefigures significant art made decades later. While the link to Cubism and early Modernism is always stressed in the story of camouflage, what is particularly exciting about Elias’s study is the evidence that the strategy of linking art and science for a wider social benefit opened the way for artists to exploit other creative opportunities. The result was a diverse series of land art experiments, large scale public sculpture interventions in the landscape, a brilliant series of razzle–dazzle Pop images and some beautiful abstract sculptural forms.

The master technician in this amazing story is Frank Hinder, whose work within the Camouflage Unit was exemplary in moving between the permeable membranes of art and science. Hinder was the right man at the right time, an artist with a cosmopolitan outlook and in tune with international Modernism, who was used to working for clients in commercial advertising. He knew how to employ his skills at the behest of others and when the government called he was able to translate his artistic training and knowledge to develop forms of ‘visual protection’. As Elias explains, ‘Camouflage, like cubism and modern design, was a problem of space, light and colour, but understanding how retinal impressions of colour impact on spatial perception was only important in the war zone if it helped save lives’. His wonderful camouflage patterns for planes and ships were not only effective, as his experiments with model corvettes in a pond illustrate, but they were wonderful works of art that pushed the boundaries of his practice as a painter and, indeed, as a sculptor. Some of his decoy planes made from string, stakes, mesh, wire and ply are masterful sculptural inventions that prefigure later sculptural innovations of the 1970s and 1980s.

The rigour of Hinder’s research is documented in numerous photographs of experiments he undertook with his colleague Gervaise Purcell, exploring how to deconstruct the shape of a battleship, plane, hanger or storage tank and trick the eye of an enemy plane overhead or a sniper in the jungle.

The other significant figure that emerges at the forefront of these experiments in light and space was the photographer, Max Dupain. Not surprisingly, Dupain’s experiments with shadows, nets and reflections in his commercial work and his studio practice before the war, were exactly the kind of background necessary to devise new ways ‘to outwit his own photography’, as he flew above the installations the unit had constructed and filmed them to confirm they worked as visual protection against recognition.

In her enthralling book Elias takes us on a journey beginning with the bombing of Darwin in 1942, where the SS Zealandia was sunk in the harbour. As she points out, in World War One the same ship was painted with wonderful ‘dazzle’ camouflage and survived the entire war; without it she was a sitting duck for the Japanese. So, with the imminent threat of an invasion, the nation realised the need to protect itself and, with the establishment of the Camouflage Unit in Sydney, the experiments began in earnest under the direction of William Dakin. Dakin was a prominent scientist who brought his wide-ranging knowledge of biology and animal behavior to the problem of camouflage and recruited some of the leading artists in the country to work with him on this task. As well as Hinder and Dupain, he enlisted Clement Seale, Robert Curtis, Daryl Lindsay, Adrian Feint, Russell Roberts, Douglas Annand, Joshua Smith and even William Dobell.

There is much to enjoy in Elias’s lively prose, and her description of the work William Dobell undertook in 1942 to convince the enemy that the Bankstown aerodrome was a rural property grazed by papier-mâché cows, links his wartime activities to one of the most famous scandals in Australian cultural life. When he won the Archibald Prize the following year with his portrait of fellow camouflage artist Joshua Smith, Elias explains that Dobell’s ‘critic’s frustrations at trying to distinguish between a true likeness and a fictitious caricature replicated the very confusions that Dobell’s work in camouflage aimed to generate’. Interestingly those same papier-mâché cows were the inspiration for John Kelly’s camouflaged bovines painted fifty years later, continuing the link back to the Camouflage Unit as both precursors and inspirers.

Elias concludes her study of the successes and frustrations of this gallant group of artists with two images, a pair of camouflage hats and contemporary works by Maria Fernanda Cardoso. The similarity between the cut and folded felt and Cardoso’s delicate cut and shaped leaves prompts her to add a final tribute ‘to those who threw their hats in the ring at the commencement of World War Two, tried to blend into the military landscape, and announced their willingness to participate in a political contest that lasted six years’.

Elias’s invaluable work in presenting a complete history of this almost forgotten chapter in the history of artistic contribution to Australian life is a lively blend of science and art. She is happy to cross between disciplines to describe the shifting boundary the artists themselves engaged in while working on this important project. This snapshot of the Camouflage Unit in the last years of the war is not only interesting as a history of a highly specialised artistic practice and of the wartime activity of a number of significant Australian artists, but more importantly it re-shapes our understanding of the importance of creative thinking when applied to problems in the wider sphere of social engagement. It is at this fertile boundary that innovation occurs and where it has lasting impact. 

Frank Hinder, 3 cardboard model planes painted in dazzle. Canberra, Australian War Memorial. Hinder Peronsal Records, PR 88/133, 4 of 12.

Frank Hinder, experiment with corvette silhouettes in pool, Canberra. Australian War Memorial. Frank Hinder personal records. PR 88/133, 8 of 12. Photograph Gervaise C. Purcell.

notes: 

Ann Elias, Camouflage Australia: art, nature, science and war, Sydney University Press. ISBN: 9781920899738.

RRP $60.00AUD