Photo: © Video-Installation Badel/Sarbach

Camouflage. Display to conceal

There is war in Europe again! What one had tried to prevent by all means after the catastrophes of the First and Second World Wars and had hardly thought possible after decades of peace – albeit only in our region of the world – has come to pass, to everyone’s horror. Omnipresent in the news coverage are the images of women and men in camouflage suits – a combat outfit that, surprisingly, is not that old.

Avant-garde and war

Camouflage clothing first came into use during the First World War. Whereas in the centuries before, uniforms sometimes featured bright and vivid colours, field grey first prevailed around 1910 in the face of new weapons and strategies. This also applied to the camouflage of ships and vehicles. It is well known that numerous artists such as Fernand Léger were not only repelled but rather impressed by the apocalyptic scenes of the front and saw in them a confirmation or stimulus for their artistic experiments.[1]  The practical work in which artists were called upon to design and execute camouflage patterns also influenced their work[2] , and even half a century later, the camouflage pattern inspired the American artist Andy Warhol to reconcile abstraction and representational depiction in the image.

Paradoxical patterns

In 1986, Andy Warhol began the series of “Camouflage Paintings”, screen prints up to three metres high and ten metres long, with which the artist deliberately competed with the monumental works of Abstract Expressionism simply because of their sheer dimensions.[3]  Warhol had already incorporated the abstract structures of Barnett Newman’s, Franz Kline’s or Clifford Still’s paintings, some of which were the result of chance and others of grandiose painterly gestures, in his paintings and especially in the screen prints of the early 1960s. In addition to the gestural hatchings in paintings such as Coca-Cola 1 and Coca-Cola 2[4], the screen prints from the series of “Torn Campbell’s Soup Cans” are particularly noteworthy here: Not only do the depictions of soup can labels torn off in narrow shreds imitate and satirise the dramatic “tears” in Clifford Still’s paintings and the “zips” in those of Barnett Newman; rather, the structures created in the process of masking off imitate both paste residues on the metal surfaces of soup cans and the abstract all-over pattern of Pollock’s paintings.[5]

Apart from their deliberate proximity to Pollock’s all-over structures and their erotic implications[6], the “Camouflage Paintings” raised the question of the relationship between reality and image in an even more radical way in that they were nothing more, but also nothing less than “a printed fabric of a printed fabric” (Richardson). They can therefore be regarded as representational depictions of abstract art – comparable to Roy Lichtenstein’s “Brush Strokes” or Yves Klein’s assertion in 1958 that Kasimir Malevich had painted a still life of one of Klein’s “monochromes” with his black square.[7]

Moreover, the paradoxical character of the “Camouflage Paintings” is demonstrated by the fact that, like the “Rorschach Paintings” created since 1984, they are abstract paintings at first glance, but they use abstract patterns that are actually made to be seen representationally. For just as the randomly created symmetrical forms on the Rorschach panels, to which Warhol referred with his large-format knock-off paintings, are supposed to provide information about the subject’s psyche by means of representational association[8], camouflage also serves to conceal a person or an object by pretending to be something else.[9] 

This paradox is further heightened in Warhol’s late paintings, in which he overprinted representational motifs such as portraits with camouflage patterns: the opposing poles of portrait as a paradigm of mimesis and camouflage as mimesis for the sake of concealment touch in these works. In some pieces – such as Camouflage Beuys or Camouflage Self-Portrait, both 1986[10] – the contours of the representational depiction and those of the elements of the abstract patterns coincide in such a way that the two layers can no longer be separated.

Showing in order to make visible and showing in order to conceal: representational depiction and abstraction are no longer opposites in these late Warhol silkscreens, but fall paradoxically into one.  

Warmth, life and death

In their current work Ardor from 2022, artist Flurina Badel and artist Jérémie Sarbach also make prominent use of the camouflage pattern. The multi-layered three-channel video projection[11] revolves around the phenomenon of heat. The focus is on thermogenesis, i.e. the ability of living beings to produce heat themselves. The artists show this with the example of the plant Typhonium venosum, which can heat its flower up to 40 degrees for the purpose of reproduction and whose activity Badel and Sarbach made visible with the help of a thermal imaging camera. While the life-giving power of heat is illustrated here, another section of the work shows the deadly function of thermography. Here, a body dressed in a camouflage suit is filmed meticulously with the thermal imaging camera. This reveals that in view of the methods of modern warfare, conventional camouflage by means of camouflage patterns becomes ineffective, since the body heat betrays the living being and makes it available to be shot down.                                                         

[1] Michaud, Eric: “Léger’s Battlefields: Art, War and Competition”, in: Fernand Léger 1911-1924. Le rythme de la vie moderne, ed. by Gijs van Tuyl and Katharina Schmidt, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg/ Kunstmuseum Basel, 1994, pp. 56-64.

[2] Dazzle Painting. Art as Camouflage. Camouflage als Kunst, ed. by Albert Roskam, Ausst.Kat. Maritiem Museum ‘Prins Hendrik’, Rotterdam 1987. Friedrich Meschede even posits, following Paul Virillo, that “abstract painting, or rather artistic strategies and concepts of modern art, are derived from the necessity of most modern military strategies to remain unrecognised at first”, see Meschede, Friedrich: “Kissenschlacht im Grünen. Mine. Camofields – Full Cover”, in: Camouflage: Uncamouflage. Kunstprojekte der Bundesgartenschau Potsdam 2001, ed. by Elmar Zorn and Kai Vöckler, Bundesgartenschau, Potsdam 2001, pp. 38-48, p. 42.

[3]   Kellein, Thomas: “Tarn-Bilder/ Camouflage-Paintings”, in: Warhol abstrakt, ed. by Thomas Kellein, Kunsthalle Basel/ MAK – Österreichisches Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Vienna 1993/ 1994, p. 59; according to Richardson, Brenda: “Hiding in Plain Sight: Warhol’s Camouflage”, in: Andy Warhol. Camouflage, ed. by Ealan Wingate, cat. exh. Gagosian Gallery, New York 1998, p. 17, Warhol considered only abstract art to be “true art”, and he had tried to be as successful as an abstract artist as the representatives of Abstract Expressionism were in his youth.

[4] Coca-Cola 1, casein, wax crayon and oil/ lw, 132.1 x 103.5 cm, private collection, and Coca-Cola 2, casein and chalk/ lw, 176.5 x 132.7 cm, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittburgh; ill.en in: Andy Warhol. Series and Singles, ed. by Ernst Beyeler, exhib. cat. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/ Basel 2000, pp. 57 and 59.

[5] Big Torn Campbell’s Soup Can (Vegetable Beef), 1962, casein, gold paint and pencil/ lw, 182, 9 x 135.9 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, and Big Torn Campbell’s Soup Can (Pepper Pot), 1962, casein and pencil/ lw, 182.9 x 137.2 cm, private collection, Switzerland, ill.s in: Exhibit. cat. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/ Basel 2000, pp. 76 and 77.

[6] According to Richardson 1998, pp. 19 and 24, the “Camouflage Paintings” with their military camouflage patterns referred to the preferences and practices of the gay subculture just as much as the “Oxydation Paintings”, which began just under a decade earlier and satirised the “Dripping” technique and possibly also Yves Klein’s “Anthropométrien” by urinating on the canvas.

[7] Lehmann, Ulrike: “Yves Klein”, in: Dictionary of Art, ed. by Jane Turner, vol. 18, London 1996, p. 117f.

[8] On the Rorschach test see, among others, Arnheim, Rudolf: “Perceptual Analysis of a Rorschach Card”, in: ders: Toward a Psychology of Art. Collected Essays, Berkeley/ Los Angeles 1966, pp. 90-102; on Warhol’s “Rorschach Paintings” see. Cat. exh. Kunsthalle, Basel/ MAK, Vienna 1993/1994, p. 51, as well as cat. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/ Basel 2000, p. 182f.

[9] Prod’hom, Chantal: “Cache-Cache Camouflage/ Versteckspiel Tarnung”, in Musée de Design et d’Arts Appliqués Contemporains, Lausanne 2002, pp. 6-16.

[10] Camouflage Beuys, 1986, silkscreen and acrylic/linen, 283.2 x 210.8 cm, Galerie Bernd Klüser, Munich, ill. in: Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/ Basel 2000, p. 185; Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986, silkscreen and synthetic polymer paint/ linen, Courtesy Gagosion Gallery, in: Gagosian Gallery, New York 1998, p. 6.






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