Select Page
Cubism, Camouflage & Colin Moss

Cubism, Camouflage & Colin Moss

Colin Moss ‘Cubist figures’ (1950) Oil on Board

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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.

George Braque Maisons à l'Estaque Houses in the French countryside reduced to cubes and spheres with stylised trees in the foreground

George Braque ‘Maisons à l’Estaque’ (1908) Oil © Photo: UNESCO Adagp, Paris 2012


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.

Pablo Picasso Les Demoiselles d’Avignon five naked women with figures composed of flat, splintered planes and faces inspired by Iberian sculpture and African masks

Pablo Picasso ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) Oil © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Museum of Modern Art



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.


Dazzle Ships

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’.

A schematic drawing for Dazzle camouflage for the Royal Navy 'Drake class' armoured cruiser/converted minelayer HMS King Alfred (1917) showing the ship with dazzle camouflage markings

A schematic drawing for Dazzle camouflage for the Royal Navy ‘Drake class’ armoured cruiser/converted minelayer HMS King Alfred (1917) Art.IWM DAZ 0029 2 © Imperial War Museum

The ship has a dazzle camouflage scheme which distorts the appearance of her bow.

USS West Mahomet – in port, circa November 1918. The ship has a dazzle camouflage scheme which distorts the appearance of her bow. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.


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.

German paint sample case from World War 2 for camouflaging aircraft runways

German paint sample case for camouflaging aircraft runways “Camouflage” by Tim Newark

Colin Moss Camouflaged Cooling Towers watercolour showing a power station camouflaged with patterns and designs in earthy colours

Colin Moss ‘Camouflaged Cooling Towers’ (1943) IWM_ART_LD_003024 © Imperial War Museum


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.

Colin Moss Study for Palestinian Landscape cubist depiction of a desert landscape with houses and palm trees

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.

Colin Moss “Cubist Landscape” (1948) Oil a cubist landscape with trees, steps and a small boat in muted colours

Colin Moss ‘Cubist Landscape’ (1948) Oil

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.

Colin Moss, unnamed Cubist landscape (c1949) a black, white and grey cubist depiction of a landscape with trees, steps, a small rowing boat and water

Colin Moss, ‘Untitled Cubist Landscape’ (c1949)

Colin Moss “Cubist Still Life” (c1949) brown and white depiction of a bottle on a table

Colin Moss ‘Cubist Still Life’ (c1949)

Colin Moss ‘Cubist figures’ (1950) Oil on Board two female nudes depicted in red, orange and brown triangles and spheres against a green and brown cubist background

Colin Moss ‘Cubist figures’ (1950) Oil on Board


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.

Colin Moss Moonlight over the Third Reich a nightmarish cubist landscape of skulls and faces behind barbed wire

Colin Moss ‘Moonlight over the Third Reich’ (1982), linocut, oil, pencil Colchester & Ipswich Museums (linocut) The Ben-Uri Museum, London (oil)


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.

Bottle and Fishes is an excellent example of Braque's foray into Analytic Cubism, while he worked closely with Picasso. This painting has the restricted characteristic earth tone palette rendering barely perceptible objects as they disintegrate along a horizontal plane

Analytical cubism George Braque ‘Bouteille et Poissons’ c.1909-12 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

Juan Gris The Sunblind 1914 Light slips through a venetian blind, casting a shadow from the wine glass onto the small table. The illusionistic appearance of the blind contrasts with the real newspaper, which Gris incorporated into the work.

Synthetic cubism Juan Gris ‘The Sunblind’ 1914 Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0  “The Sunblind” (1914) is a papier collé (pasted paper) or more specific form of collage that is closer to drawing than painting.


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.