October 3, 2014

Dazzle Prints

        Here are some really funky wood block prints by Edward Wadsworth (U.K. 1889-1949).  They look like they might be op art from the 1960’s, but in fact they come from the Vorticist movement of the 1910’s.  Vorticism grew out of Cubism, but had more in common with Futurism, with its celebration of dynamism, the machine age, and modernity.  Wadsworth was one of the founders of the movement in 1913, but Vorticism proved short-lived as a formal movement.  World War I put a damper on many artists’ (as well as the public’s) optimism for modernism, in addition to the fact that a number of members of the young movement were killed.  Wadsworth continued to be interested in the bold geometric shapes and patterns, although his work later became more realistic and eventually quite surreal.  He continued to favor nautical themes for the rest of his life.
        However, it’s the dizzy Vorticist influence in today’s woodcuts that I’m enjoying.  These were all done towards the end of World War I, during which Wadsworth worked as a camoufleur.  But he wasn’t trying to hide anything; rather, his style of camouflage was intended to confuse, making it difficult for German U-boats to determine the exact speed and direction of ships, reducing their ability to target accurately - think of a herd of zebras, perhaps.  The ships painted in these huge, crazy, geometric patterns were called Dazzle ships.  What’s fun about Wadsworth’s block prints is that they employ the same techniques they depict.  That is, while the stripes and zigzags on the ships might be quite accurate and realistic, Wadsworth goes farther by using his geometry to break up outlines, confuse background and foreground, play with light and shadow and how they define form, and, in short, dazzle!
        My favorite is the first, showing a most complete and detailed scene.  It’s almost exactly the same scene that Wadsworth also used for a major painting the next year, although the painting doesn’t have the dazzle camouflage effect of the black and white block print.
        The second piece here is more obviously stylized, with its pillowy waves.  Although it’s really simpler than the first, it looks more confused because all the black and white areas are in the same scale.  In the first piece I like the way Wadsworth has used smaller shapes as a background for larger shapes, and vice versa.  That’s pretty darn bold and sophisticated!
        The third piece really gives a sense of the size of these ships and the monumental job it was to paint them.  By using a low perspective and a simpler background, Wadsworth makes the ship look truly towering.  I especially like the curves of its propeller.
        And finally another busier, more confusing one.  I really can’t quite tell exactly what’s going on here.  As far as I can make out from the writing underneath, this is another dock scene of another ship or ships, but exactly where any given object begins or ends is tough to discern.  Which just goes to show how good Wadsworth was at his dazzling job, I suppose!

[Pictures: Liverpool Shipping, woodcut by Edward Wadsworth, 1918;
Dock Scene, woodcut by Wadsworth, c. 1918 (Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art);
Drydocked for Scaling and Painting, woodcut by Wadsworth, 1918;
Dazzled Ship(s?) in Dry(?) Dock, Liverpool, woodcut by Wadsworth, 1918 (Images from fulltable.com and graphicine.com).]


Pax said...

So, did those bold stripes work as well for british shipping as a zebra's stripes work in the veldt?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Apparently the effectiveness of the technique was wholly inconclusive! The use of radar in WWII is what really made navies stop using it, though.

Anonymous said...

The phrase Dazzle Ships was later used as the title of their 1983 album by the band OMD, who came from just close to Liverpool. The sleeve design shows some similarities to Wadsworth's approach here: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-IBjXnzxAJkc/UtOlp9TEPCI/AAAAAAAABBQ/4v4uVr3hsP8/s1600/OMD_DazzleShips.jpeg