FeliXart Museum plays hide and seek with camouflage


New exhibition in Flemish Brabant explores concealment through a combination of art, military history and zoology

Art of hiding

When Picasso first saw a camouflaged truck in Paris, at the beginning of the First World War, the story goes that he cried out: “We made that! That’s cubism.” The latest exhibition at the FeliXart Museum in Drogenbos, Flemish Brabant, shows there is a grain of truth in this, even if the relationship between art and camouflage is more complex, and begins before Picasso’s modernism.

The starting point here is Abbott Handerson Thayer, an American realist painter who published a study of natural concealment in 1909. “He researched camouflage in a very systematic way,” explains Sergio Servellón, director of FeliXart. “Before that, people only talked about patterns that resembled the natural background, but he came up with other approaches, which the military then used.”

As well as writing his book, Thayer produced dioramas with cut-out models to demonstrate his ideas. These are included in the exhibition along with his notes, sketches and paintings. For a strictly realist artist, disguise and concealment presented a challenge. Instead of showing off a bird’s plumage to advantage, for example, Thayer’s goal was to show how the patterns help it blend in with its surroundings. He had to capture the act of disappearance while sticking to the rules of realism.

Changing the rules solves that problem, but raises other questions about form and representation. The exhibition explores this artistic evolution from the post-impressionism of the late 19th century onwards with a selection of work by Belgian artists such as Rik Wouters, Jos Albert, Marthe Donas, Edmond Van Dooren and Felix De Boeck – to whose memory FeliXart is dedicated.

You can often see reality in these paintings, but it is not always obvious. “The way these works conceal figurative motifs has to do with a pattern of rhythms, of colours, of brushstrokes that tricks the eye,” says Servellón. “And this is a parallel with the patterns you can see in camouflage.”

Exposed positions

In parallel with this artistic development, the need for camouflage was increasing. Armies had become more visible on the battlefield, the air cleared by the invention of smokeless powder and troop positions revealed by observation planes. Now soldiers had to think about concealing themselves and their equipment.

This trend is explored in the next room, which contains aerial photographs from the First World War, examples of disguised observation points, and uniforms. On the wall a recruiting poster reads “Why aren’t you in khaki?” – in this context a call to concealment as well as a call to arms.

The exhibition makes connections that are both informative and entertaining

These military objects are accompanied by an excerpt from Charlie Chaplin’s 1918 film Shoulder Arms, where the Little Tramp dodges the enemy dressed up as a tree, and expressionist paintings of Joseph Lacasse that embody the trauma of living through the war. Meanwhile, moths pinned in a display case hang next to a print of a camouflaged biplane, an early type of aircraft with two pairs of wings.

This playful, thoughtful approach is typical of the exhibition, which makes connections that are both informative and entertaining. Butterflies and moths appear throughout, a kind of melodic line that returns to remind us how animals hide in nature. But pay attention because in one case the moths have aircraft insignia on their wings – not a zoological exhibit, but art by Brussels-based artist Pascal Bernier.

Dazzling ideas

An fake tree that was used as an observation post by Belgian soldiers during the First World War  

The next room is devoted to the ‘dazzle’ technique developed to protect battleships. Rather than hiding them, the irregular, angular shapes of this camouflage broke up the ships’ distinctive outlines, making it hard for attackers to tell their size, distance and direction of travel.

The parallel with abstract art is clear, and the whole room is designed as a variation on this theme. Two walls are covered with a contemporary mural by Lieven Segers, called “A Penguin, a Panda and Two Zebras Walk into a Bar”. On top of its swirling black and white shapes are hung other works of geometric abstraction in black and white, and more pinned moths. Then there are geometric sculptures by Walter Leblanc and, hiding in plain sight, two actual zebras.

After dazzle come the surrealists, who loved the concealment and deception in camouflage, and artists such as Victor Servranckx, who explored natural forms with a combination of abstraction and surrealism. Then there are camouflage textiles, with army ponchos pinned to the walls like artworks. They find an echo in the paintings of Kathleen Petyarre, an Australian Aboriginal artist whose work reflects the shape and texture of the land.

Next comes fashion, and the use of camouflage to make people stand out rather than blend in. And finally there is surveillance, the probing eye implied by all this concealment. Simon Menner’s work questions the effectiveness of disguises demonstrated in Stasi textbooks, while Adam Harvey tests make-up to confound facial recognition systems. Finally, Ria Pacquée disguises herself as a tourist, someone who is not seen, and who sees nothing.

Until 29 March, FeliXart Museum, Kuikenstraat 6, Drogenbos

Photo courtesy collection War Heritage Museum © FeliXart Museum