Hidden from history

By Ann Elias

Photo of early (1942) experiments in camouflage on campus at the University

Early (1942) experiments in camouflage on campus at the University

It was early in 1939 when William Dakin, Chair of Zoology at the University of Sydney, was approached by publisher and patron of the arts, Sydney Ure Smith. World conflict was looming and Ure Smith wanted to discuss the subject of camouflage with an expert in animal concealment and deception. His particular concern was how to bring modern art and design to the service of home defence. What evolved from their meeting was the formation of the Sydney Camouflage Group, and when war was declared later that year, its members, comprising artists, designers and scientists, were already embarked on a campaign to camouflage Australia.

Among the group was University architect Leslie Wilkinson and a wide representation of leading modernists including Frank Hinder, Max Dupain and Robert Curtis. They called themselves “camoufleurs” and persuaded Prime Minister Robert Menzies they possessed superior knowledge of camouflage for Australian conditions. Dakin was promoted to the role of director for all military operations to work in consultation with artists and advise army, air force and navy on methods and design.

To say the military found his appointment controversial is an understatement; it led to a war inside the war. Camoufleurs were civilians working for, but not part of, the armed forces and they looked highly conspicuous in civilian clothing on military sites. In the context of macho military culture their role was further undermined by the perceived effeminacy of their title and by a prevailing view that camouflage was a passive approach to warfare. Before long, the clash between civilian and military authorities became public and it was left to Eric Ashby, Professor of Botany at the University, to argue in the Sydney Morning Herald, “camouflage is still regarded in some quarters as a hobby rather than as an instrument of war”.

Photo of early camouflage experiment

Photography WJ Dakin (The Art of Camouflage, 1942)

Sydney University became a hub of research and Dakin’s professorial offices were converted into the NSW Directorate of Camouflage. Female students were taught the art of weaving camouflage nets, and lecture theatres were filled with air force personnel learning the physics of shadows. The University’s sandstone and redbrick buildings served as backdrops for experiments with camouflage colours, and Dakin, with the help of Hinder, Curtis and Dupain, researched and wrote a book, The Art of Camouflage, which was issued as a secret document for the armed forces in 1942. University staff moulded themselves to wartime culture. Frank Hinder was struck by how it affected Camilla Wedgwood, the Principal of the Women’s College. She was a pacifist who early in the war attempted to dissuade her students from making camouflage nets; by the end of the war she was a colonel in the army.

Focussing on protection

Before 1942 camoufleurs concentrated on civil camouflage for the eastern states in preparation for a potential Japanese attack. William Dobell, for example, worked as a labourer, disguising Sydney’s airfields as market gardens and building papier-mâché animal decoys. Max Dupain planted fake gum trees around bomber hideouts designed to look like innocent houses and shops. But the field of camouflage was not foreign to artists: as with cubism, modern design, and trompe l’oeil painting, camouflage was a problem of space, light and colour. The aim was to conceal facts in a broader visual background.

All photos WJ Dakin, from Camouflage in Australia – art, nature, science and war by Ann Elias

All photos WJ Dakin, from Camouflage in Australia – art, nature, science and war by Ann Elias

When the war moved into the South-West Pacific, research focused on how to protect soldiers in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Max Dupain and Bob Curtis volunteered for deployment to the island of Goodenough in Papua to operate a camouflage station. Their mission was to persuade troops to use Skintone Commando Cream and turn their pink European skin black, and to wear green uniforms instead of the louder khaki. In peacetime Papua New Guinea was the heart of the western artist’s dream of surreal, primitive Oceania. But in wartime, Goodenough Island meant malaria and sickness, monstrous insects, and the psychological disintegration known as “going troppo”. If Dupain felt initial enthusiasm at the idea of transferring to Papua New Guinea, it was drastically altered by the experience. He wrote: “I dearly wanted to return to the studio and start a civilised life again. The unstable wartime years, the grudging adaptation to ever-changing surroundings, the thousands of impressions both good and bad of varying environments, all added up to long-term shock.”

Photo of a Moorish Idol (Zanclus cornutus) well hidden in the Sydney Aquarium

A Moorish Idol (Zanclus cornutus) well hidden in the Sydney Aquarium

The story of Australia’s WW2 camoufleurs has received scant recognition, half-hidden by greater interest in the heroic work of official war artists. Camoufleurs were part of the production of war, not the act of making art for commemoration, remembrance, or protest. Their day-to-day war labour therefore could be seen as antithetical to modern art’s essential anti-war position. But once war descended on Australia there was little choice but for everyone to contribute. Ideological, psychological and moral positions on art and war were suppressed as individuals transformed themselves into servants of the war enterprise. For six years the camoufleurs of WW2 tried to juggle the demands of war and studio, and for the most part their history has – like the objects they disguised – been obscured from view.