Colin Moss ‘Cubist figures’ (1950) Oil on Board
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Cubism, with its all complexity and restrictions, and with its links to Colin Moss’s wartime work as a camoufleur, provided a rich artistic vein that the artist could mine in the post-war years. Following his demobilization from the Army in 1947, Colin Moss returned to the UK and restarted a career that the war and the army had put on hold.
The Birth of Cubism
The term Cubism was inadvertently coined by the French painter Henri Matisse. Matisse was a juror for the Salon d’Automne in 1908 and, on seeing George Braque’s painting “Maisons à l’Estaque” (Houses at L’Estaque)” remarked “They’re made of little cubes!” and promptly rejected the work. His comment was later relayed to art critic Louis Vauxcelles and Cubism was born.
The Cubist Revolution
At the beginning of the 20th century, Cubism stood European art, with its devotion to perspective and realistic portrayal, on its head. Influenced by Paul Cezanne, George Braque and Pablo Picasso broke objects down into separate planes and then placed multiple versions of them within the same space on the canvas. Whilst at first glance their work appeared flat and two-dimensional, it actually depicted different viewpoints and perspectives within a single confine.
Cubism gives birth to Camouflage
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Cubist ideas of breaking objects, and bodies, into fragments and splinters suddenly took on a new relevance. Whilst armies in previous conflicts had flaunted their soldiers in uniforms with brightly coloured coats and hats, combatants of the first global conflict wanted to disappear. The advent of airplanes that could fly over soldiers huddling in trenches gave urgency to the need to disguise and dissemble.
And so Cubist ideas of breaking up line and form, distracting with patterns and disrupting with colour gave birth to strategic camouflage. Pablo Picasso is said to have exclaimed, on seeing a camouflaged canon in Paris in 1917, “It was us [the Cubists] who created that!”.
Officers serving in the French military camouflage unit became known as camoufleurs and the term was subsequently used in both world wars by all branches of the military and by all allied nations.
The Royal Navy and Merchant Navy also adopted Cubist ideas, to protect warships and merchant vessels from German torpedoes, as did the US Navy. Ships were painted with various designs intended to distort the tell-tale features of a ship. Some designs distorted perspective, others made it difficult for attackers to focus on the ship as a target, creating delay or hesitation in the order to fire.
Roy Behrens, in the Encyclopaedia of Camouflage, refers to the dazzle ships as resembling ‘Cubist paintings on a colossal scale’.
Colin Moss – Camoufleur
Colin Moss served as a camoufleur from 1939 – 1943, working on the concealment of civilian installations. The camoufleurs of the British Camouflage Directorate were theatre set designers, practicing artists, sculptors, architects. They were recruited as “there was a natural partnership based on their aptitude for good visual recall, and their understanding of scale, colour and tone”.
The idea was to break up forms and outlines so that objects on the ground were difficult to spot, even against a shifting background (ie looking down from a plane) thus confusing “a pilot at a minimum of five miles distant and 5,000 feet up throughout daylight.” During his service in the Camouflage Directorate, Colin Moss designed a number of camouflage schemes for installations such as Stonebridge Park Power Station, London.
The influence of Cubism on the camoufleurs of World War II is easy to spot, not just in the desire to disrupt appearance and shape, but in the earthy, muted colour schemes. Early Cubist painters used restricted colour palettes to enhance the flattening effect. Camoufleurs (on both sides of the conflict) adopted similar colour schemes to further flatten and distort appearances.
Life After Camouflage
Following his years in the Camouflage Directorate, in 1943 Colin Moss joined the Life Guards, part of the Household Cavalry, and served in the Middle East and Palestine until he was demobbed in 1947. This period largely put his artistic endeavours on hold, as life became swamped by the practicalities and harsh relentless discipline of soldiering. However, a few months before he was demobbed, Colin Moss produced three versions of a Palestinian landscape – one in pencil, then as a lithograph and finally, a hand coloured version of the lithograph.
Having spent four years working as a camoufleur, it is not surprising that he chose to produce work in a similar, Cubist, manner as life began to return to normal. The influence of the “analytical cubists” such as George Braque and Issachar Ber Rybak is evident.
Re-thinking my Career
“I had to re-think my whole career when I came back from the war. I started again with a totally different approach … I was doing lots of different things because I didn’t know what I wanted to be and it took me several years to form a personality!” Colin Moss: Life Observed
Having returned to his home town of Ipswich, and now working as a lecturer at Ipswich Art School, Colin Moss continued to experiment with different techniques and ideas. But his cubist-influenced, camoufleur background still resurfaced and those early days after the war saw a number of excursions into familiar territory.
The unnamed piece below is thought to date from the late 1940s and illustrates the Cubist practice of using contrasting shading (known as chiaroscuro), dense cross hatching and patterning and, of course, multiple and contrasting vantage points.
Moonlight Over the Third Reich
Following his retirement from teaching in 1979, Colin Moss revisited his wartime experiences after a gap of nearly four decades. During this time he produced a number of works (such as Playing Soldiers, Infantry and Self-Portrait as a Soldier) that capture the grim existence of an infantry man. One of the most haunting works he produced during this period was “Moonlight over the Third Reich”. During a trip to Poland, Colin Moss visited both the Auschwitz death camp and the Museum of Warsaw. He was profoundly moved by what he saw there.
“The painting arose from, I think, a feeling that I too must make some kind of record of the Holocaust.” Colin Moss: Life Observed
Three versions of this piece exist, each deeply affecting and troubling – these are not easy works to look at. And once more we see the artist returning to his wartime, camoufleur/cubist roots with “jumbled” perspectives, flattened palettes and strongly delineated patterning.
The linocut version of “Moonlight over the Third Reich” was acquired by Colchester & Ipswich Museums in the 1980s whilst the oil painting was generously gifted to the Ben Uri Museum in St John’s Wood, London by Colin’s widow, Pat in 2009.
Two Flavours of Cubism
The Cubist movement emerged in 1908 and lasted into well into the 1920’s. During that time two distinct forms of Cubism developed. The Tate website defines the two movements in its section of Art Terms:
Analytical cubism ran from 1908–12. Its artworks look more severe and are made up of an interweaving of planes and lines in muted tones of blacks, greys and ochres.
Synthetic cubism is the later phase of cubism, generally considered to date from about 1912 to 1914, and characterised by simpler shapes and brighter colours.
Synthetic cubist works also often include collaged real elements such as newspapers. The inclusion of real objects directly in art was the start of one of the most important ideas in modern art.
And if you want to try Cubism yourself …
Below is a link to a 4-minute tutorial by the talented Aaron Wemer who skilfully illustrates many of the ideas that infuse Cubism, whilst producing a wonderful, analytical cubist drawing.