Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Franz Marc, Kandinsky, and Camouflage

I discovered something interesting details recently about the man believed to be the greatest artist killed in the First World War, German Expressionist Franz Marc. Before he died at Verdun in 1916, Marc's talents were put to work painting camouflage canvases to hide artillery positions. In this letter he describes his assignment and succinctly explains how camouflage is supposed to work. It's also clear that he considered the Russian Wassily Kandinsky's style a perfect model for camouflage artists.

I found myself in a huge hayloft (a very nice workshop!) and I painted nine 'Kandinsky's' (...) on tent canvas. This process had a very useful purpose: to make artillery positions invisible to reconnaissance planes and aerial photography by covering them with canvases painted in a roughly pointillist style and in line with observation of the colors of natural camouflage (mimicry) (...) From now on, painting must make the picture that betrays our presence sufficiently blurred and distorted for the position to be unrecognizable. The division is going to provide us with a plane to experiment with some aerial photographs to see how it looks from the air. I'm very interested to see the effect of a Kandinsky from six thousand feet
Franz Marc,  Letters from the Front

Perhaps this 1913 work, gives a little inkling as to why Marc looked to Kandinsky.

Improvisation 30 (Cannons)


  1. A smart article on the intersection of camouflage and avant-garde art in WWI can be found at

  2. I love these little-known synergies. Thanks, as always, for thoughtful posts!

  3. This was one of Marc' more interesting exploits at the front. However the works of Kandinsky's Marc is referring to are not Kandinsky's famous nonobjective works, but rather his earlier work such as Reitendes Paar from 1906, which you can see here: Hence the reference to pointillism.

  4. Please forgive me for contacting you this way; I could not find any other contact information.

    I run the blog English Historical Fiction Authors and am the President of the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. I am setting up a blog tour for the 2015 winner of the award, Greg Taylor, for his novel Lusitania R.E.X, obviously about the sinking of the Lusitania and surrounding events. I wondered if you might be able to host on your excellent blog a guest post, interview, or review or spotlight of the novel to help make it known to your readers?

    You can email me at kescah (at) gmail (dot) com. Thank you kindly!

  5. I realize that you meant visual artists who were killed in the fighting, but Gustav Klimt died early 1918 in Vienna of the flu pandemic having been weakened in the general shortages prevalent in the Austrian capital at that time. And what about the great anti-war poet, Wilfred Owen? Every student of English literature has had to read his poetry?

    1. Or even the great Canadian poet John McCrae who inspired the red poppy trend with his poem "In Flanders Field ?" He died, I believe, in October, 1918, of pneumonia.

  6. And of course there's Umberto Boccioni, the futurist master painter and sculptor who died from a horse accident in 1916, serving in the Italian cavalry. Just 33. The list goes on and on.