Whilst I sit drawing in the vineyards around beautiful, historic Evora in Portugal's Alentejo region, I am constantly aware of the myriad birds flitting from one perch to another, down the ground, up into the cork oaks edging the vineyard and off somewhere else. What impresses me is their wonderful camouflage, especially during the winter season. Unless they move, they are virtually invisible. Perhaps I have been paying their aspect closer attention than usual because I have just been reading about Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola, a French artist and soldier fighting the Germans during the First World War. With his fellow soldiers, Eugène Corbin and Louis Guignot, Guirand de Scévola is credited with inventing camouflage for military purposes. In September, 1914, at the Battle of the Marne, he was serving in the artillery, all of the soldiers dressed in their ultra-distinctive red pantaloons. When they came under heavy fire - surprise, surprise - he began to think about trying to find a way to use his art to disguise not only his artillery unit, but also the men in the unit.
The British had already moved to toning down their brilliantly visible uniforms to khaki after the Transvaal War experience, and the Germans had also changed to "feldgrau" in 1907. But Napoleon's red pants still were part ofthe French army uniform at the beginning of the Great War.
It was an interesting leap of artistry for Guirand de Scévola because until war broke out, he had been noted for his skillful, academic, often delicate pastel portraits and other theatre decorations. He also served as president of the French Pastel Society, married a very prominent actress and member of the Comédie-Française, Marie-Thérèse Piérat, and had lived a very active artistic and bohemian life in Paris.
Eugène Corbin (who was director of the Magasins Réunis in Nancy and could thus supply large quantities of cloth), theatre decorator Louis Guignot and Guirand de Scévola met in October 1914 and began to devise ways to use painted canvases to disguise the guns and make them disappear into the landscape, as nature does for so many species. They formed an unofficial artists' team to work on the projectexperimenting with shape and colour to deform and confoundthe shapes of men (think "leopard" jackets) and equipment. But it was Guirand de Scévola who had the connections in Paris to help him draw the attention of higher military echelons to this idea of camouflage. The Ministry of War soon embraced these ideas.
Very quickly, an experimental camouflage team was set up in Toulin early 1915, andartists were recruited from military units to join the group, initially thirty of them. Eventually the "camoufleurs" would number more than three thousand, housed in different studios all over Paris and beyond. Working under the insignia of the chameleon, they first demonstrated their ideas to General Castelnau, head of the Second Army and later to President Raymond Poincaré. By August 1915, Marshal Joffre was convinced of the value of hiding shiny gun barrels under camouflage, and rendering soldiers as invisible as possible, melting them back into the Picardy landscape.
Guirand de Scévola was put in charge of this large army Camouflage Unit attached to Joffre's section. (It was known colloquially as the"trompe la mort" unit.) With gold chameleon insignia on a red ground on their distinctive uniforms, an array of artists worked away at disguising the famed French kepis with paint-splotched cagoules and devising ways of hiding men and artillery, adapting their work according to the seasons and different terrains of battle. Trompe l'oeil, large theatre scenery painting, sculpture, installations, carpentry, etc., were all skills employed. Often their work was checked from the air to see if the camouflage was working; if not, rectifications were carried out. The list of artists involved was long - Jacques Villon, Emile Bertain, Roger de la Fresnaye, André Mare,Jean-Louis Forain, Auguste Desch, Henri Bouchard, among others, and even Braque was rescued from the trenches. Pre-War, the Cubists were reproached for their unpatriotic, anti-French attitudes, but their artistic skills were viewed as vital to the new war effort of camouflage. As Guirand de Scévola apparently declared, "In order totally to deform an object, I used the same methods that Cubists employ to represent objects. I was thus able to hire a number of talented painters, who, because of their very special vision, could disguise any object whatsoever."
I had never really thought about the origins of military camouflage, even as I watched US soldiers change their uniforms and equipment to desert brown to match the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, up and down the highways of coastal Georgia around the military bases. I have always marvelled at nature's camouflage, birds and animals alike, but only when I read of Guirand de Scévola's group with their genius ideas of disguise did I appreciate this century-old military skill of copying nature.