The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Surrealism, War and the Art of Camouflage

Samantha Kavky
Penn State University–Berks

As the 20th century unfolded and the technological changes in weaponry and surveillance placed a higher significance on deception and concealment in warfare, many artists found their talents valued within army camouflage units. While the percentage of these artists associated with avant-garde movements might have been relatively small, various aspects of avant-garde visual practice demonstrate striking parallels to developments in camouflage from the First World War to the Second. The most obvious similarities exist in the realm of modernist experimentation with figure/ground relationships. Yet, Surrealism, with its fluid conceptions of identity and fascination with mimetic deceptions, emerges as the avant-garde movement most aligned with the theory and practice of military camouflage, especially in the work produced by Surrealists on either side of the Atlantic during the Second World War.  Catalyzed by their experiences in the First World War, many of the founding members of the surrealist movement viewed hysteria as a form of mimetic performance able to collapse distinctions between sickness and health, deceiving both military and medical authorities. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, artists such as Max Ernst used visual mimicry to destabilize authoritative systems of knowledge. However, in the context of the Second World War, this strategy, originally embraced as a form of anti-war protest, appears more aligned with camouflage, a military strategy to deceive the enemy. Rather than a ruse to avoid combat in the First World War, simulation constitutes a necessary element of combat during the Second. This paper will explore this transformation within surrealist attitudes towards mimesis, while also tracing some of the broader intersections between avant-garde art and camouflage from the First to the Second World Wars. Surrealist art and writings in the late 30s and early 40s in particular, reveal explorations of mimetic forms, mimetic performance and mythic fantasies of powerful mimetic beings. Interest in mimetic animals found a new relevance during the Second World War, not only in the practical realm of military camouflage, but as a palliative for the alienation of the exile.

Keywords:  Surrealism / camouflage / Max Ernst / Roland Penrose / Stanley William Hayter


In the summer of 1939, the English artist Roland Penrose hurried home to London from France. Hitler had invaded Poland, war was imminent. He later wrote: “On the boat I found Julian Trevelyan also on his way home and, wondering how either of us could be of any use in an occupation so completely foreign to us both as fighting a war, we decided that perhaps our knowledge of painting should find some application in camouflage.”1 One year later, both artists were serving in the English army at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle in Surrey. They were certainly not alone; as the twentieth century unfolded and the technological changes in weaponry and surveillance placed a higher significance on deception and concealment in warfare, many artists found their talents valued within army camouflage units. While the percentage of these artists associated with avant-garde movements might have been relatively small, various aspects of avant-garde visual practice demonstrate striking parallels to developments in camouflage from the First World War to the Second. The most obvious similarities exist in the realm of modernist experimentation with figure / ground relationships, and the formal connections between Cubism and World War I camouflage have received a certain amount of attention.2 However, it is Surrealism, with its fluid conceptions of identity and fascination with mimetic deceptions, that emerges as the avant-garde movement most aligned with the theory and practice of military camouflage during the Second World War. In his history of camouflage, Dazzled and Deceived, Mimicry and Camouflage, Peter Forbes claims, “What cubism was to the First World War, surrealism would be to the Second” (137).

Both Penrose and Trevelyan exhibited work at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, an exhibition Penrose had also helped to organize. While Penrose’s sense of the foreignness between his life as a Surrealist and the exigencies of war certainly rang true for him, many of his surrealist colleagues were no strangers to warfare. The very existence of the movement can be understood as contingent upon the First World War, in which a significant number of its founding members either fought or served as medics. Their experiences directly motivated surrealist interest in mental illness and belief in its subversive potential.3 From its inception, the Surrealists sought to mimic various forms of mental derangement; moreover, they granted a privileged position to hysteria, specifically because of its disruptive ability. During World War I, “war hysteria” was pseudonymous for shell-shock and Sigmund Freud himself argued for the legitimacy of this diagnosis.4 Like Freud’s hysterical patients, soldiers suffering war hysteria shared the capacity to authentically mimic a multitude of symptoms without organic cause, thus confusing the distinctions between sickness and health. During the war, the challenge hysterical simulation presented to military and medical authorities resulted in extreme methods of treatment and pervasive confusion between legitimate suffering and malingering.5 For the nascent Surrealists, the hysteric functioned as the ultimate muse, whose ability to authentically mimic served to deceive the authorities and confuse identity. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, surrealist interest in hysteria resulted in experiments with mimesis, not in the traditional sense of a truthful copy of reality, but as a form of performance, a simulation intended to transform reality.

If the surrealist group was forged out of the First World War, it became globally dispersed during the Second. Many of the same European artists and writers who suffered through war in their youth sought asylum in the Americas during the Second World War. Others, such as Penrose, found themselves engaged in the war effort. During these years, surrealist fascination with mimesis appears to increase, but its political significance and disruptive potential changes dramatically. A strategy originally embraced as a form of anti-war protest, a way to deceive military and medical authorities, eventually becomes aligned with camouflage, a military strategy to deceive the enemy. Rather than a ruse to avoid combat, simulation would come to constitute a necessary element of combat. This paper will explore this transformation within surrealist attitudes towards mimesis, while also tracing some of the broader intersections between avant-garde art and camouflage from the First to the Second World War. Surrealist art and writings in the late 1930s and early 1940s in particular, reveal explorations of mimetic forms, mimetic performance and mythic fantasies of powerful mimetic beings. Interest in mimetic animals found a new relevance during the Second World War, not only in the practical realm of military camouflage, but as a palliative for the alienation of the exile.

World War I and Cubism

When Penrose traveled home to London in 1939, the idea of camouflage might have occurred to him because he was returning from the south of France where he had been visiting Pablo Picasso. According to an oft-repeated anecdote by Gertrude Stein, the techniques used in the First World War to disrupt the outlines of army vehicles so resembled the broken contours of Cubism that, on witnessing a camouflaged truck on the street, Picasso remarked “Yes it is we who made it, that is cubism” (Forbes 104).  Likewise, Braque recalled in a 1949 interview: “I was very happy when, in 1914, I realized that the Army had used the principles of my cubist paintings for camouflage.”6 Picasso’s boast and Braque’s self-satisfaction were not unfounded. Many of the French painters who made up the ranks of the French camoufleurs or Camouflage Corps, such as André Mare and Jacques Villion, were well-versed in Cubism. In a watercolor from his First World War journal, Mare transforms the mechanical drawing of a cannon into a cubist painting by adding apparently random areas of color and shading (Fig. 1).

Both Cubism and camouflage reverse traditional academic technique by confusing the distinction between figure and ground and flattening three dimensional spatial relationships into two-dimensional pattern. Regarding his work in camouflage, the leader of the Corps, Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola wrote, “In order to deform totally the aspect of the object, I had to employ the means that cubists use to represent it” (Forbes 101). 

However, the development of military camouflage was informed as much by natural science and evolutionary biology as by modernist art. One of the most interesting figures in this history was a late nineteenth-century academic painter and naturalist named Abbot Handerson Thayer. Thayer developed what came to be a law, Thayer’s Law of Concealing Coloration, by noticing that many animals are dark above and light underneath. This, he argued, reverses the artist’s normal use of shading which positions the lighter area closer to the light source and the darker area in shadow. As explained by his colleague, the zoologist Hugh B. Cott,

The artist, by skillful use of light and shade, creates upon a flat surface the illusionary appearance of solidity; nature, on the other hand, by the precise use of countershading, creates upon a rounded surface the illusionary appearance of flatness. The one makes something unreal recognizable: the other makes something real unrecognizable. ("Camouflage" 506).

Thayer coined the term countershading for this natural phenomena, but it very closely describes the technique developed by Picasso and Braque, who often use bits of shading irrespective of any consistent light source to deny the illusion of three dimensional space. In this way, Cubism shares elements of camouflage in its rejection of academic technique and its disruption of contours and spatial relations.  

Another element of Cubism relevant to the demands of camouflage during the First World War consists of an awareness of shifting perspectives. The simultaneous presence of multiple viewpoints was viewed as common feature of Cubism, at least as interpreted by Picasso and Braque’s contemporaries. In regard to camouflage, the necessity of considering multiple visual perspectives arose due to the increasing use of airplanes not only for attack, but for aerial reconnaissance. This constant need to shift perspective became a practical necessity for those engaged in plotting locations of troop movements based on aerial reconnaissance, such as the future surrealist, Max Ernst, serving in the German army during the First World War. Ernst fought in the 23rd Field Artillery Regiment of the Rhine, and his experiences both in reconnaissance and combat would have made him acutely aware of the significance of camouflage. It is interesting to compare one of Ernst’s Garden Airplane Traps, a series of paintings he produced in 1935 with Mare’s earlier cubistically camouflaged gun (Fig. 2).

The formal correspondences between Cubism and camouflage emerged accidentally, as both artists and camoufleurs engaged in discovering methods to subvert visual clarity. In contrast, Ernst intentionally mimics camouflage with the aim of subverting taxonomic clarity. He exploits visual correspondences, confusing the formal distinctions between planes and plants. However, his message clearly reads as anti-military, privileging nature in an aggressive assault on the aircraft.   

Mimetic Animals

The visual similarities between Surrealism and camouflage appear less about shifting contours and space and more about shifting identities. For the Surrealists, perceptual distortions function as an analog for psychological disturbances. In other words, surrealist strategies of visual mimicry and camouflage resulted in more than a visual ruse; through mimetic performance they sought to alter identity itself. In Ernst’s Garden Airplane Traps, the aggressive flora and fauna fails to conceal the machines. The viewer, looking down from a high vantage point, can certainly see them, but they appear to be caught in a process of metamorphosis between an inorganic and organic state.  

Intimations of camouflage and images that confuse the categories of animal, mineral, and vegetable, had been a fixture of Ernst’s imagery from as early as his post-World War I Dada collages, in which he transformed pages from science journals and sales catalogues into fields of battle.7 During the 1920s and 1930s he developed techniques such as frottage (rubbing) and grattage (scraping), in which found textures functioned as suggestive springboards for fantastic landscapes and figures based on visual similarity. For example, the veined patterns of a leaf become a bloodshot eye in the frottage The Wheel of Light, from 1925 (Fig. 3).

However, around 1935–36, concomitant with the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Ernst embarks on several series of paintings which feature mimicry as subject matter as well as technique. These include the Garden Airplane Traps, as well as images of jungles such as The Joy of Life and The Nymph Echo, in which plants and animals mimic each other in a riot of confused identities (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5). The immediate catalyst for these images was most likely a pair of articles written by Roger Caillois and published in the journal Minotaur: “The Praying Mantis, from Biology to Psychoanalysis,” in 1934, and “Mimicry and Legendary Psychesthenia” in 1935.  


Caillois trained as a sociologist and joined the surrealist group in 1932, only to leave it two years later after a disagreement with André Breton. He then met and aligned himself with Georges Battaille, with whom he cofounded and co-directed the College of Sociology, from 1937–39. While his membership in the surrealist group was brief, his writings clearly had an impact. In fact, Ernst remained interested in Caillois’s work throughout his life. On the occasion of donating his library to Yale University, his widow, American painter Dorothea Tanning, cites Caillios’s Mimetisme (1963) in a list of Ernst’s favorite books (5). Caillois’s essay on the praying mantis contributed to the adoption of the insect as favorite surrealist symbol. Its cannibalistic mating marked it as a form of the vagina dentata: a post-Freudian representation of the symbolist femme fatale.8 Caillois contrasts the sexual aggression of the female to the male’s ability to play dead, even after being decapitated, and characterizes the mimetic faculty of the insect as a passive tendency toward death. This idea receives further treatment in his subsequent article “Mimicry and Legendary Psychesthenia,” where he diverges from the traditional Darwinian understanding of animal mimicry as a technique for survival. In this essay, Caillois posits a fundamental correspondence between the biological camouflage of certain insects, animistic magic, and modern psychosis. He defines psychasthenia as a spatial confusion affecting the distinction between an individual and the surrounding environment, resulting in a type of dissolution or loss of self. Positioning himself in opposition to those naturalists who conceive of a type of offensive mimicry, Caillois considers mimetic behavior as separate from issues of survival. He offers examples, such as moths that mimic leaves so successfully that their own kind prey upon them. Ultimately, he compares mimesis to Freud’s death drive, using phrases such as “the inertia of the vital spirit” (10). Significantly, he only considers the possibility of the animate imitating the inanimate and views mimesis as a process in which individual identity literally becomes displaced into the environment. For him, animal mimicry becomes a sort of irrational excess of nature, resulting in an individual’s sacrifice of ego identity. 

For naturalists, such as Thayer and Cott, who approached camouflage from the perspective of Darwinian theories of evolutionary biology, human camouflage in war shared literal and metaphorical common ground with animal mimicry in the struggle for survival. In the context of active combat, Caillois’s more passive form of mimicry would have no place. Certainly, neurasthenia, the mental illness Caillois cites as an analogue to animal camouflage, would render a soldier unfit. Caillois based his understanding of neurasthenia on the work of psychiatrist Pierre Janet, who defined the illness in 1909 as being “characterized by a drop in psychological tension, by the lessening of those functions which enable one to act upon reality and perceive the real.”9 Further attributes included “doubts, agitations, anxieties and obsessive ideas.” Ernst associated mimetic deceptions with mental illness as well, albeit hysteria rather than neurasthenia. The fact that both illnesses were predominately associated with women could only serve to exacerbate the perception of their debilitating effect on soldiers. Ernst’s production of several extended series of images celebrating mimetic insects in the years immediately following the publication of these two essays, suggests that Caillois's ideas resonated strongly for the artist, reinforcing his own embrace of hysterical mimicry as a subversive and anti-militaristic force. 

However, Ernst departs from Caillois in one significant respect. While the mimetic insects and foliage of Ernst’s jungle paintings such as Joly of Life, appear to be a direct response to Caillois’s writings, Ernst embraces a more aggressive type of animal mimicry. He features the praying mantis in both active and passive modes, and offers exuberant representations of reciprocal imitation between flora and fauna. In Ernst’s jungles and gardens, the inanimate mimics the animate as well; garden plants attack planes, and even rocks mimic living forms. For Ernst, hysteria, rather than neurasthenia, reigns as the mimetic disease par excellence. Hysterical mimicry, even if unconscious, like the passive and automatic nymph Echo, functions to destabilize identity rather than to deny it.  As opposed to the apathy of neurasthenia, the hysteric engages in energetic forms of performance. 

In this context, it is interesting to compare Caillois’s discussion of mimeticism to Walter Benjamin’s ideas on the subject. In an essay titled, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” Benjamin regards mimicry as both a primitive compulsion for alterity and an ancient form of analogical understanding. He believes that this faculty has decayed in modern humans, except among children, but he posits that it lies at the origin of writing and language. He begins the essay by stating, “Nature creates similarities,” but man exceeds nature, and that, “his gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else” (333). This shifts mimesis from an automatic, passive phenomena found in nature, to a conscious human activity. Throughout the essay, he repeatedly uses the term “nonsensuous” to characterize mimetic correspondences, which seems to directly oppose Caillois’s suggestion of sensory confusion and physical as well as psychic permeability. While one could argue that both active and passive types of mimesis infiltrate Ernst’s imagery, the more conscious, conceptual and performative aspects of his use of mimesis positions him theoretically closer to Benjamin than Caillois, particularly during the years surrounding World War II. The same could be said of his friend and colleague, Roland Penrose.

Roland Penrose: The Illusionist 

Roland Penrose met Ernst in Paris in the mid-1920s and they quickly became friends (Wilson 363). This friendship benefited both. While Penrose’s first one-man show in Paris in 1928 clearly demonstrates Ernst’s influence on his work, Penrose reciprocated financially, helping to finance Ernst’s first collage novel. Significantly, the first painting Penrose purchased was Ernst’s Joy of Life. Whether Penrose read Caillois, or his interest in mimesis came directly from Ernst, in 1938 Penrose constructed a series of collages featuring mimetic illusions such as Magnetic Moths (Fig. 6).

Penrose’s moth presents a visual sleight of hand rather than the cannibalistic struggles of Ernst’s insects. Penrose arranges tourist postcards of Parisian monuments: the Eiffel Tower, the Opéra, the Moulin Rouge, as repeated patterns to simulate the body of a moth and budding plant. The image is clever, meant to delight rather than perturb. Not only does it engage in playful contrasts, it reverses the process described by Caillois by transforming inanimate architecture into a lively animate creature. Certainly after producing this type of art, a job in camouflage would seem the obvious choice for a wartime occupation.    

In 1939 Penrose and Trevelyan joined the printmaker Stanley William Hayter in a commercial venture called the Industrial Camouflage Research Unit. The plan was to help civilian businesses use camouflage defense against aid raids. The artists ran this business out of an office in London, rented to them by one Erno Goldfinger, who later wrote that he thought it was pretty much a con (Forbes 143–44). While a short-lived enterprise, for Penrose, it led directly to a position as a civilian lecturer on camouflage for the Office of the Home Guard and he and Trevelyan both ended up working at the Royal Engineers’ Camouflage Development and Training Centre. As an expert in camouflage, Penrose proved to be quite competent, publishing the Home Guard Manual of Camouflage in 1941. His text reads as a straightforward and practical manual, outlining different forms of camouflage and mimicry in nature, and explaining their use as models for the practical application of camouflage in the field. The illustrations and photographs are clear and didactic, the writing lucid. There seems to be nothing very surrealist about it. However, when considered as part of the debate over the inherent offensive or defensive nature of mimesis, his introduction raises some interesting points. He argues that modern warfare has made the visual display of aggression a thing of the past, because “the elephant, the red coat and the massive castle become useless against the machine-gun and heavy artillery.” He adds that when intimidation is still used, it is mostly through sound. But for the most part, “concealment is now the order of the day,” even, he argues, “if hiding seems repulsive to the old soldiers.” He continues by giving examples of how new technology, aerial reconnaissance, and different types of photography have changed the strategies and tactics of modern warfare. Based on this text, the most salient common ground between surrealism and camouflage in warfare might be Penrose’s claim that in successful camouflage, the key element is surprise. But his only visual concession to surrealism in his wartime occupation appeared in his lectures, in which he would often show a slide of his partner Lee Miller under camouflage netting (Fig. 7). 

He referred to this as his startle slide, meant to wake up those who might be nodding off, and supposedly claimed that if camouflage could hide Lee’s charms, it could hide anything (Forbes 151).

Stanley William Hayter: The Automatist

In Penrose and Trevelyan’s original attempt at commercial camouflage, they were joined by the printmaker, Stanley William Hayter. Hayter had studied chemistry and worked in the oil industry before moving to Paris to study art. In 1927 he opened his printmaking studio, Atelier 17. During his time in Paris he associated with the Surrealists and worked with many of them, although he never signed on as an official member. However, he practiced the surrealist technique of automatism throughout his career and was steadfast in his claim that his imagery emerged from his own unconscious. As with most claims to automatism, his can be qualified by the fact that his unconscious shares many of the images and themes of his colleagues. While his etching Combat of 1936 can be understood as a response to the Spanish Civil War, and the figures suggest a battle of horsemen, they also appear rather insect-like, especially those in the foreground (Fig. 8).

The intimation of insects, horses and violence echo many of the themes found in contemporary surrealist works, especially those of Ernst. Another example, Hayter’s etching Man-eating Landscape, from 1937, recalls Ernst’s Garden Airplane Traps.  Both displace the cannibalistic hunger of the mantis onto nature itself as it consumes humans and their products. Scholarship on Hayter tends to focus on his technical innovations, his use of materials, and his impact as a teacher and facilitator of the art of engraving, rather than on his subject matter. Surrealist images in general tend toward violent eroticism, and images of violence notably increased in the mid- to late 1930s, probably in direct response to the Spanish Civil War and uneasy premonitions of more war to come. However, the number of violent titles in Hayter’s work is notable even for a Surrealist. Images bear titles such as Rape of Lucretia, Murder, Combat, and Rape. Many of these engravings echo the themes and automatic line of the work of André Masson as well as Ernst. In orthodox surrealist fashion, Hayter’s images of erotic violence appear to emerge directly from an automatic process as indicated by the looseness of the line as it moves from contour to the interior of a figure to the exterior. Despite the aggressive violence of the subjects, this fluidity relates the works theoretically to Caillois. In Hayter’s engravings, he dissolves his figures into the environment in a way that drains them of individual identity or integrity of form. 

In 1940 Hayter joined the wave of European artists emigrating to the United States. He settled in New York, where he reopened Atelier 17 which soon became a social and artistic nexus for European artists exiled in New York, as well as for the American artists of the emerging New York School. His devotion to automatism provided a theoretical and practical conduit between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. In particular, his version of surrealist mimicry and the confusion of the boundaries between figure and ground eventually resulted in “all-over” compositions paralleling the development of Abstract Expressionism. However, his work continued to demonstrate an iconographic closeness to Surrealism and the influence of Caillois, or at least a shared interest in mimetic and cannibalistic insects, particularly in prints such as The Cruelty of Insects, 1942, and Prestige of the Insect, 1943 (Fig. 9).

These works combine surrealist automatism with specific reference to that quintessential surrealist emblem, the praying mantis. The visual confusion between plant and animal forms recalls Ernst’s insects and jungles; however, like Ernst, Hayter differs from Caillois in one respect: he animates the inanimate. The plant forms in The Cruelty of Insects mimic the cannibal aggressiveness of the mantis. The more aggressive and performative aspect of animal mimicry evident in Hayter’s work (the “prestige of the insect,” refers to a menacing stance performed when threatened) may result from that fact that he continued to work on military camouflage for an American defense contractor.10 He also collaborated with Carlos Dyer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on the camouflage section of their publication for the exhibition Britain at War in 1941. Hayter appears to have been a conduit not only between surrealism and other modernist movements, but between the avant-garde and military camouflage on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Museum of Modern Art produced a major exhibition of Hayter’s work and influence in 1944. Prior to that, the museum produced three exhibitions devoted to camouflage between 1941 and 1942. The first of these was the section of Britain at War previously mentioned, which was followed by two exhibitions on civilian defense developed in collaboration with the Addison Gallery of Art, in Andover, Massachusetts, and the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, respectively. The Pratt Institute ran Camouflage Research Laboratories to train architects, engineers and designers. These MoMA exhibitions emphasized the concealment of civilian targets from aerial bombardment, the type of work that engaged Penrose, Trevelyan and Hayter in London in 1939. In a press release for the “Camouflage for Civilian Defense” exhibition of 1942, the description of the show parallels the text of Penrose’s Home Guard Camouflage Manual, specifically in outlining the threats of the new technologies of vision: “aerial photography with super-speed cameras, telescopic lenses, infra-red film and the revealing use of stereoscopic photographs.”11 According to Penrose, the purpose of the camoufleur was not so much to conceal, but to confuse, which placed special emphasis on the use of texture, the elimination of shadows, and the use of screens and decoys.

Much of Penrose’s handbook seems to derive from the work of zoologist Hugh B. Cott, who specialized in the study of animal mimicry and published the influential book, Adaptive Coloration in Animals in 1940. His interest in the practical application of animal strategies for military camouflage appeared earlier in a series of lectures to several English military institutions and was published in 1938 in the Journal of Engineers. While Cott’s relation to the military suffered some ups and downs, he did serve briefly at Farnham in 1940 while Penrose was there.  Cott’s attention to animal adaptations and particular emphasis on color and texture resonates in Penrose’s Home Guard Camouflage Manual, in which Penrose emphasizes the importance of texture in disrupting shadows and concealing military equipment from aerial surveillance. This focus on texture as a means to distort and confuse figure / ground relationships suggests another formal connection between the development of camouflage and contemporary directions in avant-garde art. 

During the 1920s, Ernst’s innovative techniques, frottage and grattage, created textural grounds as a germinating matrix for his figures. Likewise, decalcomania, a technique he experimented with immediately prior to and during the Second World War, consisted of pressing a painted surface in order to produce a complicated textural ground which in turn offered a suggestive field for figuration. These techniques operate in reverse of camouflage: Ernst drew images out of textures, isolating figures from a non-differentiated environment. Hayter’s major contribution to the process of line engraving, possibly influenced by Ernst’s use of textural fields, reverses the process again, compromising the linearity of engraving by the introduction of the effects of texture. In his prints, texture functions more along the lines of camouflage to deny figure / ground distinctions. In Prestige of the Insect, areas of texture overlap the figure in a counter pattern, reading simultaneously as both figure and ground. Then, in the early 1940s Hayter developed methods to expand the use of color within intaglio printing, eventually creating all-over compositions of pattern and texture in which all sense of figuration is lost. On the occasion of Hayter’s 1944 MoMA exhibition James Johnson Sweeney published an essay in the Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, in which he quotes Hayter, who claims that one of the main concerns of modern artists, “the integration of space and object, find[s] a perfect medium in methods of line engraving” (3). 

The Mythic Camouflage of “The Great Invisibles”

The integration of space and object is, of course, also the aim of camouflage. Artists such as Penrose and Hayter who actively worked on military camouflage during the Second World War, found concrete military applications for avant-garde practices. While both artists had been exposed to and assimilated surrealist interest in mimetic animals prior to the war, their involvement with camouflage operated on a practical rather than theoretical level. On the other hand, Surrealists, such as Ernst and Breton, who like Hayter fled to the U.S. at the outbreak of the Second World War, were more directly informed by the ideas of Caillois, and explored more theoretical and psychological approaches to camouflage.12 

Shortly after arriving in New York, in the first issue of the surrealist journal VVV, Breton published an essay titled “The Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism, or Else.” In this text he answers his own call for a new mythology by providing one: the myth of the “Great Invisibles.” He writes: 

Man is perhaps not the center, the focus of the universe. One may go so far as to believe that there exist above him, on the animal level, beings whose behavior is as alien to him as his own must be to the may-fly or the whale. There is nothing that would necessarily prevent such beings from completely escaping his sensory frame of reference, since these beings might avail themselves of a type of camouflage which, no matter how one imagines it, becomes plausible when one considers the theory of form and what has been discovered about mimetic animals.  (216)

While the reference to mimetic animals appears to be a nod to Caillois, Breton’s myth cites camouflage as an attribute of mythic figures engaged in deceiving humanity, and can be understood as an attempt to decenter man, not through a loss of identity, but by relegating human consciousness to the status of animals in relation to these superior and alien beings. Breton’s fantasy could also be read as a sort of wish fulfillment, the desire of the displaced refugee to adapt to a new environment. Breton struggled to adjust to life in the U.S; he didn’t speak English, he felt isolated and depressed, and his artistic movement was fragmented and geographically dispersed. The mythic power of the “Great Invisibles,” transforms the psychic dissolution of Caillois’s mimetic animals into a positive ability to unify individual and alien environment.

As an adaptive strategy, Breton’s myth of the “Great Invisibles” compares to the performative mimicry of his colleague Ernst, who embarked on a campaign to identify himself as a Native American Shaman, literally “playing Indian,” in order to create a mythic connection to his new country.13 In either case, these models of mimesis seem less subversive or even self-destructive than those previously embraced by the Surrealists, and especially those represented by Caillois. Rather than defining mimicry as a passive and automatic function akin to various forms of mental illness—the loss of ego identity of neurasthenia or even the subversive simulation of hysteria—surrealist models of mimesis during the second World War rely more on anthropological characterizations of active mimicry.14 

While living in New York City, both Breton and Ernst befriended fellow émigré, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and joined him in collecting Native American art. As displaced refugees, they each embraced a type of universal primitivism as a way to establish substantive connections across geographic and cultural differences.15 Crucial to Ernst’s program of “playing Indian” are a series of photographs taken by Lee Miller on the occasion of a trip she and Penrose made to visit Ernst and Tanning in their home in Sedona, Arizona in 1946. In these images Ernst poses against the landscape draped with a native blanket or works on his new house while wearing a kachina mask. His imitative performance resonates in his art as well; in many of his Arizona landscapes he animates the rock formations, transforming them into totemic and mythic figures. For example, in Inspired Hill, 1950, the red rocks of the Sedona landscape metamorphose into fish, birds and anthropomorphic figures evoking a sort of mystical vision of a world integrated through reciprocal mimicry (Fig. 10).

During his years in America, Ernst’s use of mimesis changes from a disruptive force to one of unification. His appropriation of a Shamanistic identity and his projection of his own psyche onto the landscape functions to connect his own ego to his cultural and physical environment in an active and expansive manner.  After the First World War, Ernst and other surrealists mobilized hysteric mimicry as a form of protest; during the Second, mimicry takes on mythic power. Breton’s “Great Invisibles” transcend the mere deception or confusion of mimetic animals in their power to completely disappear.


1 From Roland Penrose, Scrap Book 1900-1981 (124). Also cited in Forbes (137).

2 See especially the work of Elizabeth Louise Kahn.

3 There exists a large body of scholarship on the impact of World War I and combat-related mental illness on the development of Surrealism. For World War I, hysteria and the art of Max Ernst, see Kavky, “Max Ernst’s Post-World War I Studies in Hysteria,” as well as works by Foster. For Surrealism, World War I and mental illness, see works by Lomas and Lyford.

4 See Sigmund Freud’s introduction to the published proceedings of the Fifth Psycho-Analytical Congress at Budapest held in September 1918, where he argues that “war neuroses” or “shell shock” is a variation of hysteria.

5 For hysteria and World War I see Lerner, Roudebush, Leed, and Fussell.

6 Forbes cites Gertrude Stein’s account of this incident in her Picasso (1948). He cites Braque from Alexander Lieberman, The Artist in His Studio (41).

7 See Kavky, “Ernst’s Studies in Hysteria.”

8 For discussions of surrealist interest in the praying mantis, see Belton and Markus.

9 Cited by Frank in the “Introduction” to the Roger Caillois reader.

10 David Cohen mentions this in a footnote in his essay, “S.W. Hayter and the Atelier 17 in America, 1940-1955,” in Hacker.

11 See “Camouflage for Civilian Defense Subject of Circulating Exhibition at Museum of Modern Art,” Press Release, August 6, 1942.

12 Among artists associated with Surrealism, Arshile Gorky probably best combines the practical and theoretical approaches to camouflage. His interest in the subject dates as far back as 1937, when he lectured on the subject at the American Federation of Arts in Washington, D.C. In 1940 he taught a class at the Grand Central School of Art in camouflage, which he advertised as combing practical methods, history, and modern art theory. His course proposal is published in Rosenberg. See also Michael Taylor, “Gorky and Surrealism.” 

13 For a more extensive discussion of Ernst’s “playing Indian” and his mythmaking activity in America see Kavky, “Max Ernst in Arizona: Myth, Mimesis and the Hysterical Landscape.”

14 See Deloria as well as Taussig.

15 The idea that the Surrealist’s attitudes toward mimicry moved closer to those espoused by anthropologists such as Lévi-Strauss and away from Caillois is interesting considering a later rivalry between the two.  


Works Cited

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