Tobias Rehberger Transforms London’s HMS President Into Dazzle Ship

Leading artist Tobias Rehberger has transformed London’s HMS President (1918) by covering it entirely in ‘dazzle camouflage’ print as part of the 14-18 NOW special commissions programme to mark the centenary of the First World War.
Dazzle Ship London has been co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions and Liverpool Biennial in association with the University of the Arts London Chelsea College of Arts, HMS President (1918) and Tate Liverpool, in partnership with Merseyside Maritime Museum. Dazzle Ship London is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Goethe-Institut London.
As one of the last three surviving warships of the Royal Navy built during the First World War, the HMS President (1918), the first type of warship built specifically for anti-submarine warfare would have originally been decorated in this way.   Now moored permanently on the Thames near Somerset House, Rehberger’s artwork creates a new landmark inspired by the legacy of dazzle ships.
Tobias Rehberger said:
“Dazzle painting to me perfectly represents the idea of ‘not seeing something’ – the way these camouflage patterns were designed to hide objects. To dazzle camouflage HMS President, an original WWI dazzle warship, gave me the opportunity to take my work out of the exhibition space and to project a new, contemporary visual experience onto an object while also returning it to its past identity.”
Jenny Waldman, Director of 14-18 NOW, said:
“We are thrilled to have Bloomberg Philanthropies supporting 14-18 NOW’s major new public art work for London. In doing so Bloomberg Philanthropies has enabled us to extend the project’s reach through its support of our public engagement and interpretation plans. Their early and enlightened commitment to 14-18 NOW’s vision of commissioning bold new works from leading artists is typical of Bloomberg, whose continued leadership in arts philanthropy is inspiring and much needed across the sector. We are grateful for their support.”
‘Dazzle camouflage’, also know as ‘dazzle painting’, was used extensively during the First World War as a means of camouflaging a ship, making it difficult for the enemy to target it accurately. This visual technique has been a recurring theme in Tobias Rehberger’s work. In 2009 he was awarded the Golden Lion Award at the 53rd International Venice Biennale for a café he created that was based entirely on the principles of dazzle pattern.
The theory of dazzle painting was first introduced in 1914 by the scientist John Graham Kerr to then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, with the intention of adopting disruptive camouflage which was initially called ‘parti-colouring’. The idea was not to ‘hide’ the ships, but to paint them in such a way that their appearance was optically distorted, so that it was difficult for a submarine to calculate the course the ship was travelling on, and to know from what angle to attack. The ‘dazzle’ effect was achieved by painting the ship in contrasting stripes and curves that broke up its shape and outline.
In 1917, following heavy losses of merchant ships to German submarines, the demand for this camouflage increased. The marine painter, Norman Wilkinson, a future President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, promoted the spectacular system of stripes and disrupted lines, characterised by garish colours and sharp interlocking shapes, to which he coined the term ‘dazzle painting’ and was credited with its invention. The strong style unsurprisingly attracted artists’ attention with Picasso claiming it was invented by the Cubists and Vorticist artist Edward Wadsworth, painting a series on the subject after he supervised the application of ‘dazzle’ patterning to over 2,000 ships.
The close relationship of ‘dazzle’ technology to British art extended right through its manufacture. Each British pattern was unique. They were first tested on wooden models, viewed through a periscope in a studio to assess how they would work at sea. Many of the designs were painted onto the models by women from the Royal Academy of Arts in London and then scaled up onto the real thing. Though the practice has largely, but not entirely, fallen out of fashion in the military, ‘dazzle camouflage’ remains a source of inspiration to artists today.
In Liverpool, Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez has dazzle painted the historic pilot ship, the Edmund Gardner as a companion work. Conserved by Merseyside Maritime Museum, the ship is situated in a dry dock adjacent to Liverpool’s Albert Dock and is a new public monument for the city.

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