The Forgotten History of How Modern Art Helped Win World War II

Camouflage—at least in its present incarnation—grew up alongside modernism. And though the relationship between art and war was long ignored by historians, it's now coming to light just how intertwined they really were. Particularly when it came to hiding things in plain sight.

Most of us are familiar with British painter Norman Wilkinson's development of "dazzle ships" during World War I (Picasso claimed Cubists had invented them, for the record). Yet young artists played a vital role in developing tech that helped win World War II, too. In the 1940s, ideas about visual perception from Cubism and Surrealism were transplanted directly from salons to barracks. Had the avant-garde not been focused on getting to the bottom of how humans perceive the world around them, Allied forces wouldn't have been so adept at concealing and detecting it.

The Forgotten History of How Modern Art Helped Win World War II

A "dazzle" ship in 1918.

In the 1920s, both scientists and photographers alike were interested in manipulating how humans see. On the brink of war in the late 30s, the military had made huge improvements to how both planes were spotted from below and figures spotted from above, thanks to advancements in infrared vision and other techniques. So when war finally did break out, the issue of camouflage was suddenly much more important than it ever had been. And luckily for the military, radical developments in the art world were working on the same problem—albeit for different reasons.

The Forgotten History of How Modern Art Helped Win World War II

The Camouflage Exhibition at Chicago's School of Design in 1943. via

Radical artists like László Moholy-Nagy, who had fled the Bauhaus to Chicago, were soon being tapped to revolutionize camo. Moholy-Nagy was the perfect candidate: His kinetic sculptures and paintings manipulated the human eye using patterns, shadows, and moving parts—and the military wanted to do roughly the same thing. As a teacher at Chicago’s School of Design, he began organizing students to help apply the same ideas to camouflage design a few weeks after Pearl Harbor.

The Forgotten History of How Modern Art Helped Win World War II

Burbank's Lockheed Air Terminal concealed by cloth in 1942.

Moholy-Nagy’s contributions ranged from how to conceal a cylindrical target (like a silo or propane tank) using paint to how patterns can trick the eye from a distance. In 1941, Moholy-Nagy was appointed to the mayor's personal staff—he was charged with helping conceal Chicago in the case of an attack. "During blizzards and rainstorms, in fog and in brilliant sunlight, he had to take flights to absorb air views of the city under diverse weather conditions," wrote one biographer. "While he fought air sickness, which he never overcame completely, he pondered how to conceal the vastness of Lake Michigan with a simulated shore line and floating islands."

Such large-scale urban camouflage sounds like a wild idea now, knowing that no attack ever came, but the idea was adopted in plenty of other towns—for example, Burbank was temporarily concealed by a thin layer of cheesecloth in 1942. Soon, Moholy-Nagy's school had become a “certified school for camouflage personnel,” and was attracting attention from all over the country. In 1943, he curated a popular exhibition on his findings. Yet his contributions to the US military are rarely mentioned—maybe because of the more important role he played in the art and architecture world.

The Forgotten History of How Modern Art Helped Win World War II

László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes, "Materials for the Camoufleur," Civilian Defense, September 1942.

Other Allied nations were tapping artistic talent for the same reasons. In England, the surrealist painter and close friend of Picasso, Roland Penrose, worked to establish an English standard for concealment—which was even more pressing in light of the UK’s proximity to Germany. His book, the Home Guard Manual of Camouflage, was a veritable how-to on popular painting techniques at the time—from Cubism to Pointillism—applied to warfare. He went on to found London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.

The Forgotten History of How Modern Art Helped Win World War II

In Australia, two famous modern artists followed a similar path, detailed in a terrific post by Australian professor Ann Elias this week. She describes how photographer Max Dupain and painter Frank Hinder worked to apply the latest techniques in modernism to wartime deception, ranging from double-exposures to obliterative shading, a style that made it difficult to distinguish between foreground and background. “Abstraction’s dissolution of form, surrealism’s subversion of the authority of vision, collage's disorientation of perspective and cubism’s fragmentations were all modernist trends,” observes Elias.

The Forgotten History of How Modern Art Helped Win World War II

Max Dupain's experiments with optical camouflage.

So why don’t we hear more about the wartime contributions of these famed modernists? It’s a complicated question, but it likely has to do with the negative relationship many artists (and curators) developed with the military in later decades, and the reluctance of historians to incorporate an iconic artist’s “applied” work with their larger oeuvre. Elias agrees. “It is a great irony of art history that the role of modernist artists [in the] wartime effort has been largely ignored or forgotten,” she says. “Perhaps it has not a little to do with the way it sits so ambiguously–and uncomfortably–between the history of violence and the history of aesthetics.”

Still, even the Abstract Expressionists of the 1960s had ties with the military. In 1995, former CIA agents confirmed a long-standing rumor that the agency had funded artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in an attempt to wage a culture war on the Soviets’ Social Realism.

Are artists still working for the US government today? Definitely. Though these days, the Army doesn't draft them—they just send out an RFP.

The Forgotten History of How Modern Art Helped Win World War II

László Moholy-Nagy's Composition Z VIII. Lead image of Moholy-Nagy's photographic experiments via.