Max Dupain and the Sydney Camouflage Group
3 January 2012
A fascinating and untold chapter in Sydney's history is the subject of a new book by Sydney College of the Arts lecturer Ann Elias.
Camouflage Australia: art, nature, science and war (Sydney University Press) tells the little known story of the Sydney Camouflage Group, which formed in 1939 and included zoologist William Dakin, photographer Max Dupain, architect Leslie Wilkinson, artist Frank Hinder, art patron Sydney Ure Smith and many others.
Sydney College of the Arts lecturer Ann Elias began her study in 2002 after becoming intrigued by the visual complexities of camouflage.
"Like surrealist art, camouflage is designed to unsettle the senses and subvert the authority of vision," she said.
"During my research I soon realised there was a fascinating crossing of boundaries between art, natural history, military history and social politics," she said. "And my interest then broadened to look at the impact of war on artists."
The book tells how the Australian government accepted zoologist Dakin's advice and seconded the country's leading artists and designers to deploy optical tricks and visual illusions for civilian and military protection.
Drawing on previously unpublished photographs and documents, Camouflage Australia exposes the story of fraught collaborations between civilian and military personnel.
The group's leader William Dakin was not a military man but a student of camouflage in animals who thought of warfare and camouflage as a basic, primordial, animal-like demand to survive.
Both Dakin and Leslie Wilkinson were staff at the University of Sydney, so the university grounds were used to test concealment and deception methods, while Dakin's office in the Zoology Department was a camouflage laboratory.
After July 1941, the majority of the Sydney Camouflage Group's members became official camoufleurs with the Department of Home Security.
In this engrossing book, Elias provides an international context for the historical circumstances and events of the organisation of camouflage in World War II in Australia and the Pacific region.
By redressing the historically invisible role of Australian artists and designers in World War II, Camouflage Australia makes a major contribution to the history of art and to the history of Australia.
Ann Elias is a lecturer and tutor in Theoretical Enquiry at Sydney College of the Arts.
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