As a new response to the First World War practice of dazzle painting is unveiled at Tate Liverpool, Assistant Curator Stephanie Straine finds links between abstract art and this unusual camouflage technique

  • Carlos Cruz-Diez dazzle ship Liverpool
    Carlos Cruz-Diez's dazzle ship in the dry dock at Liverpool

Can abstraction change our perception of the built environment that surrounds us? While perhaps not at the forefront of the concerns of city planners, this question has often been posed by artists over the past hundred years. Abstraction has the potential to shape our cities, industries and technologies, sometimes in quite unexpected ways. This realisation had a direct impact on one aspect of the British navy in the First World War, through the practice known as dazzle painting. A form of camouflage for naval vessels, dazzle painting began in 1917 when the British marine artist Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971) devised a strategy whereby a ship should be painted ‘not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course on which she was heading’.

Dazzleship from IWM archive, Tate Liverpool
Dazzleship from IWM archive

Revisiting and responding to this daringly experimental episode in wartime naval history, Liverpool BiennialTate Liverpool and National Museums Liverpool have jointly commissioned work by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. Playing a major role in developing what came to be known as kinetic-optic art across the last half century, Cruz-Diez’s practice from the 1950s to the present day has fundamentally altered our experience and understanding of colour. Using the pilot ship Edmund Gardner (moored in the Canning Graving dock near Tate Liverpool) as the canvas for his own interpretation of dazzle painting, Cruz-Diez, has previously made works that physically insert colour into the city’s fabric; most notably in 1975 when he designed crosswalks for the streets of Caracas, profoundly altering the standard ‘zebra’ crossing by introducing rhythmic slices of primary and secondary colours across their lengths. As the artist has said: ‘My work is an attempt to reveal the true nature of colour and the effects it produces on man … our relationship with the world of colour is deeply emotional.’

Carlos Cruz-Diez, 'Physichromie No. 113' 1963, reconstructed 1976
Carlos Cruz-Diez
Physichromie No. 113 1963, reconstructed 1976
Painted metal
object: 1000 x 1000 mm
Presented by the artist 1976© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

As part of a further Liverpool Biennial collaboration, an earlier Cruz-Diez work, Physichromie No. 123 1964 from Tate’s collection, is included alongside other collection works within a temporary structure designed by French architect Claude Parent for the Wolfson Gallery. Constructed from cellulose acetate and wood, this work is part of an ongoing, potentially endless series titled the Physichromies (a title invented by the artist combining the words ‘physical chromatism’). Cruz-Diez has explained that: ‘The Physichromies are structures that reveal the changing effects and conditions inherent to colour. They change according to variations in light and the spectator’s shifting viewpoint, projecting colour into space and creating an evolving situation’. In all cases the artwork is ‘activated’ by movement: the viewer must move around in front of the surface in order to experience the full range of colours visible within the structure.

Edward Wadsworth, 'The Port' circa 1915
Edward Wadsworth
The Port circa 1915
Woodcut on paper
image: 187 x 127 mm
Purchased 1970© The estate of Edward Wadsworth

Complementing Cruz-Diez’s practice in the Wolfson Gallery (and abstraction more broadly) are two woodcuts by Edward Wadsworth, an English artist who supervised the painting of more than two thousand dazzle ships after he was invalided out of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1917. Wadsworth was associated with vorticism, the short-lived movement of English avant-garde artists (seen as a home-grown alternative to cubism and futurism) that celebrated the modernity and progress of the machine age in the early twentieth century, while nevertheless acknowledging the true manifestation of this technological progress in the horrific casualty rate resulting from the First World War’s mechanised carnage. Wadsworth’s The Port  woodcut c.1915 at first appears wholly abstract, but its title confirms that the interlocking field of geometric shapes is in fact a bird’s eye view of a port – the repeating rectangles indicating a vast number of jetties, their multiplication heightening the monochromatic print’s dizzying quality. This complex woodcut is precise and machine-like in its execution, despite the difficulties of the medium. It is closely related to the works that Wadsworth produced for the vorticists’ journal Blast, which appeared in 1914 for two issues, edited by the painter Wyndham Lewis.

David Bomberg, 'Ju-Jitsu' circa 1913
David Bomberg
Ju-Jitsu circa 1913
Oil on board
support: 619 x 619 mm
frame: 760 x 761 x 35 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1963© Tate

This foreshadowing of the enterprise of dazzle painting can also be found in the gallery in David Bomberg’s Ju-Jitsu c.1913, on show as part of the DLA Piper Series: Constellations display on the first floor. Geometric shapes and figurative elements are brought together in a kaleidoscopic chequerboard of interlocking areas of white and coloured paint that suggest the human body without ever really representing it. Bomberg wrote that: ‘the new life should find its expression in a new art, which has been stimulated by new perceptions. I want to translate the life of a great city, its motion, its machinery, into an art that shall not be photographic, but expressive.’ Bomberg shares with Cruz-Diez a recognition of colour’s expressive, emotive potential, and in works such as Ju-Jitsu he succeeded in producing a new articulation of modernity, in all its complex and vigorous energy.

Cruz-Diez, Wadsworth and Bomberg all demonstrate an interest in expressing through colour perceptions of the modern, industrial city. They share common ground in the intense desire to situate art firmly in relation to the everyday, and to provoke new experiences as a direct result.

Carlos Cruz-Diez’s dazzle ship is a joint commission presented by 14-18 NOWLiverpool Biennial and Tate Liverpool in partnership with Merseyside Maritime Museum