Dazzle ships

The contribution made by the Cubo-Futurist art movement to Britain's First World War effort does not always receive due acknowledgement, IMHO.

Recognition, however, was granted this week, with the exhibition in London and Liverpool of two of the war's so called 'dazzle ships', the HMS President and the Edmund Gardner.

HMS President, patterns designed by Tobias Rehberger | Image Chris Wainwright

To mark the war's centenary the surfaces of both ships have been decorated with harsh geometric patterns - designed by the German and Venezuelan artists Tobias Rehberger and Carlos Cruz-Diez - similar to those they sported when in service 100 years ago. Thousands of British ships were painted in the 'dazzle' style in an effort to confuse German U-boat tracking devices: the patterns acted as a kind of camouflage, distorting the appearance of the ships sufficiently to make it difficult for the enemy to chart their course, position and speed.

First World War dreadnought

HMS Argus, 1918

The dazzle concept was developed by marine artist Norman Wilkinson, and implemented by the avant-garde painter Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the creation of a range of striking geometric patterns suitable for application to a wide range of ships, including both warships and convoy vessels. During the course of the war dazzle patterns were applied to more than 2000 ships.

Wadsworth was a sometime member of the Vorticists, a circle of British artists strongly influenced by the radical Cubist and Futurist movements that had developed elsewhere in Europe during the early 20th century. The Vorticists sought to move British art in a radical new direction. Their work celebrated speed, acceleration, energy, machinery and modernity, and was characterised by the use of swirling geometric patterns, vibrant colour schemes, sharp edges and mechanical motifs evocative of technological progress.

First World War convoy ship

A design for a dazzle ship by Edward Wadsworth

The group publicised their ideas and work through their magazine BLAST!, the name of which made plain their desire to sweep away what they saw as the staid legacy of Victorian and Edwardian art. The magazine, like the movement itself, was short lived, publishing only two volumes, in 1914 and 1915, but in addition to the work of the Vorticists themselves it included contributions from prominent literary modernists such as Ezra Pound and TS Elliot, and its stark typography exerted a significant influence on the subsequent path of graphic design through the 1920s and beyond.

In retrospect it is curious indeed that such a radical movement played so significant a role in a war effort overseen by the conservative establishment of Empire: approval for the patterning of British warships according to Vorticist design principles was granted by none other than Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty.

USS Essex

Technical drawing for HMS Highflyer

USS Nebraska

Composition, by Vorticist Wyndham Lewis, 1913

The Machine Age, drawing by unknown Vorticist artist, 1916

For more on the dazzle ships, see the excellent feature on the 14-18now website. And vorticism.co.uk is a useful resource for comprehensive information on the Vorticist movement.