What to ‘see’ in Ottawa this year

A show at the Canadian War Museum points out artists’ long association with camouflage

What to ‘see’ in Ottawa this yearThere was a moment in 1982 when basic black briefly didn’t seem to be the coolest thing a punk rocker could wear. Punk was fading that year, at least the brand that surfaced in the late seventies, and goofy eighties rock was rising. But in a last full-throated yelp, the Clash put out what would be their final record, Combat Rock, and Joe Strummer, the London band’s peerless lead singer, started showing up for concerts in camouflage. Strummer died in 2002, but his ’82 camo pants, incredibly, have survived. When I came upon them in the new Camouflage show at the Canadian War Museum, a not very new wave of nostalgia crashed over me.

Don’t imagine a baggy army surplus. Strummer’s camouflage trousers look to have come by way of Carnaby Street. They have the same skinny, nearly cigarette-cut profile of the noir denim he was more typically photographed wearing. It didn’t matter if they didn’t look all that authentic: by the time Strummer discovered camouflage, as the museum’s fascinating exhibition demonstrates, its connotations had long since crossed from army to art to fashion. If his pants were meant to convey a fighter’s toughness, they mostly managed to be (pace, unreformed punkers) unthreateningly hip.

In fact, the show, which originates at the Imperial War Museum in London and runs in Ottawa until Jan. 3 next year, engagingly traces the history of how artistic sensibilities have been tied up with camouflage from the very outset. Camouflage originated in the First World War, when bombing from airplanes and long-range artillery proved devastating against easily identified targets, like troops in red and blue uniforms. The French realized first that they needed to break up the profile of men and equipment against battlefield backdrops. This was logically work for artists. Among the most remarkable objects in the show are the First World War notebooks (looking fragile under glass) of the French painter André Mare, whose sketch of a camouflaged field gun is unmistakably cubist.

By the end of the war, all major combatant nations had established their own camouflage units. But this remained a sort of handicraft—helmets were hand-painted and greatcoats individually splattered—until the technology to mass produce fabric with irregular printed designs emerged in the late 1920s. In the Second World War, camouflage became commonplace. The exhibition shows off a wide array of so-called “disruptive pattern uniforms” that followed, ranging from the jungle greens and desert browns to a white Canadian uniform meant to disappear against snow.

Perhaps the most arresting part of the show is the section devoted to so-called “dazzle” painting on Second World War ships. The designs, which can look like geometric abstract art, were meant to make whole vessels vanish against sea and sky. Among the well-chosen sprinkling of Canadian additions to the British show is a small oil painting of a bedazzled ship by Rowley Murphy, shown beside two photos of ships for which the Toronto artist designed the dazzle paint jobs.

Asked if dazzle succeeded in fooling U-boat commanders, Kathryn Lyons, the Canadian War Museum interpretive planner who adapted the show for Ottawa after its popular run in London, conspiratorially whispers, “Not really.” Yet the effort wasn’t entirely wasted: apparently dazzle worked wonders for the morale of sailors, who felt less like sitting ducks, and civilians who watched these confections steam out to sea.

There’s a slight tension in the way we view camouflage, or at least there once was. On one hand, it’s inherently fun to look at. On the other, it’s inextricably linked to warfare. That made camouflage an obvious anti-war fashion statement in the Vietnam era. Soon enough, Andy Warhol was silkscreening candy-coloured camo; two of his prints grace this exhibition. Camouflage skateboards and haute couture, also in the show, came later.

I wonder if the curators missed something key by neglecting the way M*A*S*H—both the 1970 movie and the 1972-1983 TV series—made loosened-up military seem like a cheerful, mildly rebellious look. The mainstream M*A*S*H aesthetic might be one reason why Strummer’s camouflage looked less like a statement than a style. But in the context of this show, that seems only apt. Camouflage has always been as much about artists as armies anyway.