Australian troops disembarking at Alexandria after the evacuation of Greece

The aim of this large-scale composition was to capture the spirit of the Australian soldiers at the end of a desperate campaign. The Australian troops had been committed to the defence of Greece, but were swiftly driven back by German forces and compelled to retreat to North Africa via Crete. It was in Alexandria, Egypt, while they awaited further transportation, that Hele met the vast number of soldiers involved and set about drawing numerous studies. These sketches would later provide Hele with the necessary reference to complete this large figure painting.

Australian troops disembarking at Alexandria after the evacuation of Greece
painted in Aldinga, South Australia in 1943
oil on canvas
139.9 x 206 cm
acquired under official war art scheme in 1943
(22230)

The canvas is a sea of exhausted men, lying, sitting, barely standing, carrying only small possessions or weapons with them. Hele has sought to capture the heat and dust of Alexandria and thus restricts his palette to dull pink and camel. The figures become immersed in the thickness of the paint. Hele’s aim is to portray the intensity of light in North Africa, sunlight so strong that it destroys form. Many of the paintings completed by Hele based on his experiences in North Africa have been painted in this limited colour range.

Hele selected two close friends as models for many of the figures in the foreground. As a result, similar facial features appear on the men. The reclining figures have been strategically placed to provide a visual opening in the centre of the canvas, leading the viewer back to the huts and carriages and the city of Alexandria in the distance.

Questions and discussion
Discuss the techniques employed by Hele to create distance in this painting.

Compare the final painting with studies of the same subject in the exhibition. What changes has the artist made as the work developed? Analyse why these might have occurred.

Hele’s style of painting was closely aligned with that of the Australian Academy of Art. Investigate the influence of the Australian Academy in the selection of official war artists.

Practical exercise
Imagine that you are a figure in this painting. Draw or paint what you can see.

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