Professor Jonathan Lamb
‘Cross-Cultural Camouflage’

There are three distinct categories of camouflage that herd under a generalization suitable to them all, namely you imagine (or you know) that you are visible to another pair of eyes, and you wish to modify that situation. The modifications are basically three:

(a) you wish to be even more visible than you are already.
(b) you wish to be invisible.
(c) you wish to be seen differently from how you presently appear.

The first modification is mostly aggressive, like the markings on a wasp or a sea-snake, or painting the nose of a fighter-plane to look like a shark with its mouth open. The second is more or less the opposite, a discreet removal from the eye you imagine has seen you, but it is worth noting that this relies upon a feat of projection on the part of the viewee, whose camouflage will only be as successful as the projection. The third is a more extensive category of wishing, responsible for the immense success of fashion industries in selling cosmetics, clothing, hairstyles, music, cars and holidays. Here the projection used by category (b) is calculated for just the right equipment, in just the right place and at just the right time to appear neither extraordinary nor under par, but precisely comme Il faut. It is an artificial species of sympathy that neither wishes to obtrude nor be ignored.

I aim to talk about two examples of camouflage, namely blushing and tattooing. Insofar as it is a spontaneous action of the body, unwilled, blushing fits none of these categories, but it has something in common with (b) in that it is a reaction that changes one’s colour. Tattooing fits (a) in some circumstances and (c) in others, for in one the contexts I shall be examining it is fully intended to astonish and possibly confuse the viewer, whereas in a case of blushing it is usually the person viewed who is abashed, angry or trying to evade the consequences of being seen.

My examples will start with a marginal illustration to Hogarth’s picture The Country Dance, which he used to illustrate what he had to say about blushing in his book of aesthetics, The Analysis of Beauty. I want to compare it with two examples of Maori tattooing that came back from the South Seas in Cook’s Endeavour. The first is a standard example of what is called moko, and is still used today. The second is a much more elusive pattern from Cape Brett, called puhoro, and is coming back into fashion as an arm, leg and thigh ornament, but when Cook and his talented artist Sidney Parkinson saw it, was being used as a facial tattoo, but very quickly disappeared in that form after contact with Europeans. I want to ask what these three images have in common, how they function as camouflage, paying particular attention to the lines of hatching in each of them, and what kind of action and motion they express.

Image: Abbott Handerson Thayer, Richard S. Meryman, Peacock in the Woods, study for book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, 1907, oil on canvas, 45 1⁄4 x 36 3⁄8 in. (114.9 x 92.4 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the heirs of Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1950.2.11